SMK (Statens Museum for Kunst) Copenhagen Vanh Do, to 2nd December 2018
A preliminary notice: it would seem that at least on Wednesdays, SMK encourages entry to every school aged child in Denmark, all at once. The noise, chaos and disruption is severe if what one wants is a quiet, contemplative space. Maybe it’s everyday of the week this invasion happens, but I have been before and enjoyed more peaceful times. Next time I go on a Wednesday it will be after five, when I note there are late openings and string quartets, for free (with ticket).
Having said that, SMK still has lots to offer. The first artist I made note of was Per Kirkeby (1938 – 2018) one of Denmark’s most prominent abstractionists and one-time minimalist. Dating from 1965, a work (I didn’t note the title) has 18 firebricks formed in a square on the floor. The piece naturally draws a comparison with Carl Andre’s firebricks (Equivalent VIII) which were so controversial when bought by the Tate in 1972. Andre’s work was ‘made’ in 1966. I wonder who got there first? Perhaps nobody noticed the Dane. Kirkeby also made what he called his ‘Field Books’ – what we might describe as a hybrid between a sketch book and a scrap book. These allow for a high degree of experimentation and free thinking, they are certainly a medium for wild associations. In one page even an image of a pensive looking Gordon Brown appears through smudges of paint or ink. So contemporary! Full-on obfuscation! From these might emerge large canvases. They had some on show at the Louisiana too, illustrated above.
The main event is a temporary exhibition by the Vietnamese born Danish citizen Vanh Do. He is now one of those artists who works between Berlin and Mexico City, perhaps his travel lust is a hangover from having been one of the Vietnamese Boat People. His work is global in its context, tracing elements of colonialism and Christian missionary fanatics, two of the many invasive species of Western imperialism which sought to subjugate Vietnam over the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though Vanh Do uses western motifs in this exhibition, he challenges them with sometimes outright rejection, or indeed with considerable subtlety.
Consider for example a mocked up room, which within its walls has a set of 14 vitrines each containing a letter from that great man, Henry Kissinger. Each was sent to Leonard Lyons, the theatre critic of the New York Post who often gave theatre tickets to Kissinger. In one of these banal thank you letters Kissinger regrets that thinking of Cambodia must prevent him from attending some performance or other. Hopefully the show didn’t bomb too. Vanh Do has a knack of collecting items which illustrate in various ways the invidious consequences of the Vietnamese war. There is a magnificent chandelier which came from the Majestic Hotel in Paris where the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed. Here it hangs six inches above the floor, resplendent but somehow devoid of its fully illuminated grandeur, like some forgotten out of fashion object which ought to be tucked away in a warehouse under a dust sheet.
When it comes to religion, Vanh Do’s imagery is often withering, not least because of the titles he gives his work. “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell” (made from a Roman marble child and an oak Madonna and child, 2015), “Shove it up your ass you faggot!” (another oak Madonna and child, 2015) or “Dirty Dancing” (wooden crucified Christ head and torso, 2018) capture the spirit. The artefacts used in these sculptures are mainly pieces from old and very old religious statuary, and so have a heightened piquancy which many will find much too bitter. Other disjointed or cut-up limbs find their way into wooden crates, packaged to travel who knows where. The story of faith itself, one might say. I wonder how this goes down in the U.S. Not for show in Alabama I don’t suppose.
This is a show that has a strong sense of the ‘other’ which uses familiar objects to undermine their intended meaning. They are repurposed on their way to a defenestrated provenance, and for Vanh Do ideas of provenance are nearly always interwoven with visceral irony. I’d like to see the show again, hopefully it may come to the U.K.