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10 Dec 2018 / by Ellen Oredsson

A Chat with Danh Vo About ‘Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint’

Artist Danh Vo, wearing a white T-shirt, stands in front of a wooden pavilion structure in a gallery space, smiling slightly at the camera. One side of the wooden pavilion structure is covered by a large square sheet of pyramid-shaped rice paper lanterns lit up from the inside, casting a warm glow.

Danh Vo in front of his work Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2). Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, the latest exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, showcases a dialogue between two artists, both considered to be some of the most influential figures in modern and contemporary art: Japanese–American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Vietnamese–Danish artist Danh Vo (born 1975). The show is curated in partnership with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

Danh Vo was born in Vietnam in 1975, but his family fled the country as refugees when he was four years old, ending up in Denmark. He creates works that poetically conjure up lesser known histories and biographies through found objects and artifacts. We recently sat down with Danh Vo to find out more about both his own works in the show, and his relationship to Noguchi.

Can you tell us about the background of this show?

I’m Danh Vo. I’m an artist, and, together with M+ and The Noguchi Museum, I proposed and have prepared this exhibition with my own work and the works of Isamu Noguchi.

What was bringing Isamu Noguchi into this exhibition like?

Danh Vo stands in a gallery space looking up at the large sheet of rice paper lanterns hanging off the side of a wooden structure.

Danh Vo looking up at Noguchi’s Akari PL2 lamp, on the side of his own work Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2). Photo: M+, Hong Kong

The purpose of the exhibition is to present two bodies of work from two artists. Noguchi is an artist that I looked into relatively late, and it has just been this fantastic universe to explore. I want him to be a guideline for me in terms of what I want to achieve as an artist. Many of the challenges have of course been with presenting Noguchi’s work, because how do you represent sixty years of work? It’s a difficult task, but it has been fantastic to learn about the works through installing them.

Just like Noguchi, you have lived in many places. How have the places you lived or visited influenced you? How do you feel about the concept of ‘home’?

I learn through my work. I always consider my most important works to be the ones that teach me about the world. I’m sure that it was my curiosity that has been the engine that moved me from one place to the other, and I can relate my approach to life to having parents who were refugees. I think that really taught me to move, because I grew up not knowing about my past. My parents never talked about it, because it was traumatic for them. I think when you decide to move to another place and never return, you look forwards. And if I grew up with anything, it was this idea of moving forwards, and not looking back.

A chat with artist Danh Vo, and curators Doryun Chong, and Dakin Hart
A chat with artist Danh Vo, and curators Doryun Chong, and Dakin Hart
6:03

Curators of the exhibition Doryun Chong and Dakin Hart offer insights into the shared backgrounds of the two artists Isamu Noguchi and Danh Vo—their multicultural upbringings and explorations of different cultures—to reveal why and how they have been paired for this exhibition.

Video Transcript

DANH VO: It’s the combination of Noguchi’s work that is intriguing for me because it illustrates this beautiful, curious mind.

DORYUN CHONG: Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint is a two-person exhibition of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi and Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. It is structured around the concept of ‘counterpoint’ which is a musical term that describes two separate, independent melodies that sometimes weave together to create a harmony and at other times exist independently and separately.

DAKIN HART: With the idea of the scholar’s garden, we try to use Noguchi’s to create a world, a universe for Danh to move around in and think about, and inhabit it seemed like an ideal metaphor for a way to connect them. Isamu Noguchi is an American sculptor, who was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese poet and an American editor and writer. He was a set designer, he was an industrial designer he collaborated with lots of different kinds of creative people across the spectrum and he really made a career out of, as he said being at home nowhere, precisely but making himself at home everywhere. And he really tried to see himself around the planet and to draw on many, many cultures obviously, he was bi-racial, and multi-cultural that became the heart and soul of his practice.

Play was extraordinarily important to him play is how we learn how to interface with the world and each other. He thought of something he called ‘non-directive play’ and the idea is to make playgrounds that are more like nature than they are like military training grounds which is what playgrounds looked like when he started thinking about them. Nature doesn’t tell you what to do with it nature is an open space with infinite interpretations physical interpretations.

DORYUN CHONG: Danh Vo—in the early part of his career he became known for mining his own family’s histories as refugees arriving in Europe after having left Vietnam that had been devastated by war and the continued turbulence. He is a connoisseur of forms and skills and craftsmanships with an incredible eye and one aspect of Danh Vo’s practice has been deep engagement with stories and histories and narratives of different individuals. Sometimes these individuals are not artists but are still people with incredibly touching and meaningful life stories.

DANH VO: When I started to work on We the People to recreate the skin of the Statue of Liberty I was interested in working in opposition to how people have framed my work at the time people talked a lot about that I was using my personal history in my work etc. and I wanted to work against that idea because I don’t think it’s true. I think one has to explore different ways of working. It was really interesting to discover that the Statue of Liberty was actually only 2mm thick in the skin. I thought it was important because I could take an image that most people have a relationship to so I thought I freed myself from the personal history and so forth.

DAKIN HART: Noguchi spent his entire life on the margins of the canon and Danh is doing the same thing now. Danh is trying to create an alternative parallel from the outside that asks different questions [and] provides a different perspective on old stories. Noguchi didn’t really think in human time. Human time is a blink. That’s why he loves stones because stones were a way to think about much longer arcs.

Danh, I would say, tends more to insert one cultural perspective into another. The root impulse is the same which is a sort of diasporic mentality... how to let seeds disperse, and help them take root and help them grow into new things.

DORYUN CHONG: What Danh Vo’s doing with Isamu Noguchi is not just an academic exercise of researching and exploring the older artist’s body of work he is thinking of Noguchi as a kind of a lodestar for his own body of work that is continuously evolving.

In the end this exhibition is about how artists can inspire one another.

What is the concept behind the pavilion in the gallery space, Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2)?

In the works of Noguchi, he seamlessly transversed the categorisations of many things, but especially with sculptures and design. We wanted to have a place in the exhibition where we could hang and place objects, but also a place where people could rest, sit down, and look at the gallery. I had recently started to look into these pavilions, because they are representations of the classical Chinese building tradition, and it’s just a fantastic design. When you strip away all of the ornaments, it’s basically a modular system that is a very important element in modernist architecture. Even Bauhaus looked into these modular systems. It’s just a beautiful structure.

There are no walls guiding visitors through the exhibition. What impact do you think this has on the viewing experience?

A gallery space with white walls and light grey floors is dotted with various sculptural forms throughout. A large wooden pavilion structure stands on the right with large sheets of rice paper lanterns hanging off it. In front of it stands a small round wooden platform with two sculptures standing on it and a rice paper lantern hanging above.

Installation view of the M+ Pavilion space during Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint. Photo: © South Ho

I learned very early on that I cannot control the viewer. We all look at things differently, and what I like about the space without walls is that it’s the sculpture in itself that defines the space and architecture. When you deal with sculptures, you walk around them; you walk back and forth, and you explore. I think as an artist you make a proposal, and people walk in it and explore it on their own terms.

Can you tell us about your works in the containers outside the gallery space?

Two grey containers sit on the ground next to a patch of grass and sparse trees. The front of the first container is open and covered with glass doors. On the right next to the containers, on the grass, is a red steel sculpture shaped like a thick, horizontal, wavy circle on small stands.

The containers outside of the M+ Pavilion containing Danh Vo’s works. Photo: © South Ho

When we started to select the works to be in the show, I wanted to create a little bit more space, so I decided to put two containers with my works outside.

One of works in the containers is called Dirty Dancing, and it's about religion. I was actually forced to go to church every Sunday until I was eighteen years old, and I really hated it. I didn’t know what I was doing there. Later on, I discovered that my father was not always Catholic; he converted to Catholicism late in life. Before that, he was actually Confucian, and a very big believer in Ngo Dinh Diem, the first South Vietnamese president, being able to unify Vietnam. Dirty Dancing is about the relationship between me and Christianity and my father.

A copper sculpture leans on the white wall of the inside of a container. The sculpture consists of curved, wavy, abstract forms.

Part of Danh Vo's sculpture We the People (detail) leaning against one of the container walls. Photo: © South Ho

Another one of the works inside the containers is a part of We the People (detail), which is almost three hundred sculptures distributed across the world that, if put together, create a one-to-one replica of the Statue of Liberty. When I started to work on We the People (detail), I was interested in working in opposition to how people were framing my work. At the time, people talked a lot about how I was using my personal history in my work, and that I didn’t make a lot of large pieces. I wanted to go against that idea, because I didn’t think it was true. I think one has to explore a lot of different ways of working.

So I was invited to Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel, a relatively big institution with big exhibition spaces, and in my mind the only thing I could come up with when thinking of a large thing to put there was the Statue of Liberty. I thought it was important because I could take an image that most people have a relationship to, freeing myself from any personal history, and creating this Frankenstein’s monster that got its own life.

What is one of your favourite works by Noguchi in this exhibition?

A paper lamp hangs from the ceiling. It is a slightly asymmetrical oval shape.

Close-up view of Noguchi’s Akari [16A], 1952. © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS; Photo: © South Ho

I think it’s the combination of Noguchi’s works that really is intriguing for me, because it illustrates his wonderfully curious mind. But I really envy him for creating the Akari lamps. I think they’re so misunderstood, having sometimes been seen as too commercial. For me, I just see these beautiful sculptures. He was an apprentice of Constantin Brâncuși, the Romanian sculptor, but also American architect Buckminster Fuller. And when you look at these lamps—at his decision to put modern technology and structure into this old Japanese lantern tradition—it’s like a mix of his mentors unified in this beautiful item.

As told to Ellen Oredsson. The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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