Fillip 14 — Summer 2011

Ascetic Desire

Amy Zion

Entering Autoerotic Asphyxiation, the first US solo exhibition of Danh Vo, felt like trespassing into an empty gallery between installations. Light flooded the undivided room, streaming in from two walls of large windows covered by white curtains, descending ceiling to floor into the cleared out expanse of the gallery. There, an eerie emotional residue charged the open, loft-like space as if it were witness to someone’s passing or a relationship’s dissolution. The space felt suspended in a state of transition, anticipating new inhabitants and activities. The curtains covered the entirety of the two walls in embroidered, gauzy, translucent fabric with a semi-opaque underlayer. Upon closer inspection, the fabric revealed a number of black-and-white photographs (installed in the narrow strips of wall between the windows) depicting a time and place far from the exhibition, which was presented at Artists Space, New York, in autumn 2010. Documents lined the adjacent white walls, snaking around the gallery and into its administrative spaces, including a small library, open office, and a space next to the elevator. Hung together, these objects drew attention to gaps in the installation, breaks that operated like elegiac caesuras highlighting a sense of absence. In this process, 
Vo took the exhibition’s “ground,” the gallery’s architecture and administrative system—that which is usually rendered invisible within a white cube context—and turned it into an important, if ghostly, “figure,” discernible in the artist’s arrangement of embroidered curtains, found photographs, and document displays.

The viewer in a Vo exhibition is akin to a historian,1 tasked with assembling narratives from an event’s traces, its objects, photos, and ephemera. But unlike the static archives from which the archaic historian might draw and weave but one grand narrative from myriad interpretations of a historical event or a more contemporary historian might revise a historical narrative and allude to an event’s possible interpretations, Vo’s exhibitions often include recurring and reshuffled sets of photographs, imagery, and objects that invite the viewer/historian to piece together a new, but related, story with each iteration. It is through Vo’s assemblages that the viewer is offered an approach to history akin to what Heather Love calls a potentially “interminable analysis.”2 In Feeling Backwards, she proposes a queer historical methodology based on impossible love, analogized as a desire to confront the past without being seduced or destroyed by it. Offering one of many propositions for engaging with the past, Love draws on Henry Abelove’s introduction to Deep Gossip, where he distinguishes curating as “taking care of” but not curing nor resolving.3 Thus, Love argues that “taking care of the past without attempting to fix it means living with bad attachments, identifying through loss, allowing ourselves to be haunted.”4 By mixing and recontextualizing artifacts in every exhibition, Vo takes care of, or “curates,” an agitated history such that each installation acts as an entry point and not an escape from (or resolution to) a traumatic past. His installation represents a fidgety history that refuses to be “fixed.” 

Like Felix González-Torres before him, Vo takes the exhibition as a medium, arranging historical objects to create an enigmatic presentation that demands close attention and research on the part of the viewer. Queerness in this exhibition functions as a way of seeing operationally rather than topically, as an identity of the artist or of anyone depicted in the exhibition. As Judith Halberstam describes in A Queer Time and Place, queerness, detached from sexual identity and seen as an “outcome of strange temporalities,”5 for example, comes closer to Foucault’s famous proposition that it is homosexuality as a way of life, a way of engaging socially rather than sexually, that threatens society.6 Queerness, therefore, can be a mode of alliance. For example, Dr. Joseph M. Carrier, an American counter-insurgency agent stationed in Vietnam during the war, photographed the central set of images in this exhibition, entitled The Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962–73. Decades after the photographs were taken, Vo met Carrier while the artist was attending a residency in California. According to Vo, Carrier, who by then was almost in his eighties, saw the artist’s Vietnamese name and came to the residency’s open studio to “cruise” the twenty-something artist. However, instead of rejecting this advance outright, Vo forged a friendship with Carrier, who showed and eventually willed to the artist his private collection of photographs, love letters, and other ephemera he had collected before he was required to leave his post in Vietnam on suspicion of homosexuality. 

Vo includes the will as an object in the exhibition, hanging it on the wall opposite a set of windows in the back left corner of the room. The will, which names Vo as heir to Carrier’s Vietnam collection, is public and juridical, declaring and codifying their relationship to one another through the bureaucratic language of the state. Vo selected photographs from this collection to exhibit in his installations, presenting images that predominantly feature young Vietnamese men alongside fragments of their local landscape and architecture. These images express a comparatively more intimate and informal relationship than the will might indicate formally. 

During my visit to Autoerotic Asphyxiation, the curtains happened to hang open at sections of two curtained walls so as to reveal photographs depicting scenes that oscillate between tourism and voyeurism, each offering the opportunity to produce counter-narratives to dominant photojournalistic accounts of Vietnam. Only one image was included that hinted at war, in which people are captured swimming, far away from the camera, while explosions detonate in a distant background. A second image appeared alongside the first, depicting a man who poses in a field. The curtains, at one point, opened to frame nothing but the gallery’s architecture and a row of white-painted pipes. At another, they obscured more furtive moments. For instance, two men are framed through sets of windows separating Carrier (located inside an antique store) from his subjects (situated outside in a market square), who appear unaware of the photographer as they lean into a private chat. Nearby, a duet of images showed pairs of men in uniform who have been photographed from behind, casually clasping hands in a crowd. In one moment, the curtains’ sheer, embroidered layer veiled two images of the same instance in which a lone man—again, appearing unaware of the photographer clicking behind him—gazes at the sea; he is shirtless, and his shorts, blown by the wind, reveal more glistening skin. Intimate scenes of men holding hands, sleeping side by side, or talking closely spotlighted forms of public male intimacy that were once—and may still be—common and socially acceptable behaviours in Vietnam, forming a leitmotif that links the series of images Vo pulled from Carrier’s collection. The curtains floating between the images and the viewer stood in as a marker for the absent camera and emphasized the photographer’s voyeuristic gaze and my corresponding position as the voyeur/viewer, and by extension, the scopophile. Peeking through the curtains, I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the men caught on Carrier’s film. Did they survive the war? What kind of relationship, if any, did they have to the foreign photographer, a de facto “enemy”? And how do these images disrupt the dominant photojournalistic depiction of Vietnam between 1962 and 1973? 

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’s deeply personal meditation on photography and loss, young photographers are “agents of death” because they transform their live subjects in front of the lens into lifeless objects, images captured through a “simple click” of the camera’s shutter.7 Carrier’s images reference countless “simple clicks” that turned Vietnamese men (and women and children) during wartime into lifeless photographic prints. This transmogrification relates in an especially traumatic way to Vo’s exhibition and personal history. The artist was born in Vietnam in 1975, and four years later his family fled the country in a makeshift boat bound for America. They were, however, intercepted by a Danish vessel, and eventually taken to Copenhagen, where Vo was raised. Vo considers the 1962­–73 images included in this exhibition a kind of self-portrait, since he could stand in for many of the anonymous men depicted in Carrier’s photographs, especially since they appear to be about the same age as him. Barthes, contemplating his own position in front of the camera lens, relates a desire to take over the moment of his representation such that he is neither subject nor object, the moment at which he can feel himself becoming an object. That instant contains the experience of a “micro-death,” when Barthes says: “I am truly becoming a specter.”8 Of course, by Barthes’s logic, this moment could not be represented in a photograph, which is necessarily an object. But Vo, as the subject who both arranged the photos and appears to materialize as an object within their frames by virtue of his resemblance in appearance and subjectivity to the represented, appears ghostlike in this liminal position at the site of “micro-death.” Perhaps in these multiple and simultaneous roles, Vo occupies a presence, suspended in the moment of the “simple click.”

Barthes’s description of the camera’s instantaneous click brings to mind the image of a guillotine, and I quickly discovered that there is in fact such a thing as a “guillotine shutter,” which mimics the beheading machine’s slice in order to trap light and fix images inside the camera. This violent gesture echoes in the exhibition’s puzzling press release. In lieu of the standard incantation of “pleased/proud to announce/present (adjective) (artist)’s X at Y,” Vo provided the visitors with an excerpt from the State of Delaware’s Department of Corrections publication Execution by Hanging: Operation and Instruction Manual. The document was available in the gallery as single sheets and was also etched onto a metal plaque and installed next to the entrance. Execution by Hanging lists the eleven steps to prepare for an execution, which aims to snap the victim’s neck, killing him or her instantaneously. This (oxymoronic) “humane style” of capital punishment supposedly takes the executioner and any spectators present into account as much as the victim, which spares the former, at least, from witnessing a body writhing between life and death. 

02.02.1861 (2009), a framed handwritten letter, hangs to the right of the plaque. It accompanies an appropriated old photograph, bye bye (2010), which depicts missionaries leaving Paris for Asia in 1852. Together, these artifacts function as a counterpoint to the tidy division between life and death proffered by the press release. bye bye is a black-and-white heliogravure from 1852 depicting five men who display an intimate familiarity with one another, much like the anonymous men in Vietnam pictured on the opposite and perpendicular walls. Three stand in the back row, resting their hands on the shoulders of the two men sitting in front, who hold each other’s hands between their laps while posing for the camera. The archaic technology is presumably responsible for erasing the eyes of the two missionaries in the back row and also creates a soft-edge focus around the scene, making the men therein appear to float as apparitions on top of a black background. One of these men is identified as Th. Vénard, the author of the accompanying letter transposed in ink by Phung Vo, the artist’s father. Phung Vo’s beautiful, steady, curlicued handwriting traces the final “adieu” Vénard sent to his own father before his decapitation in Asia in 1861. The letter outlines a space of acceptance in the face of death: Vénard describes being loved by his fellow inmates and guards at the prison, as well as a resignation to his fate—beheading—likening it to “a spring flower picked by the garden master for pleasure.” The original letter is written in French, but the gallery provided an English translation next to the press release. 

The two typed documents juxtapose the State’s official and methodical account of capital punishment with a victim’s personal and calm anticipation of such punishment. Like the photographs, Vo’s two texts recall the late ’60s and ’70s, when conceptual artworks existed as Mail Art, or borrowed the “aesthetics of administration”—to use Benjamin Buchloh’s term9—to create artworks in document format, such as numbered sets of instructions for executing drawings or performances. Buchloh criticized practitioners like Joseph Kosuth who used the “aesthetics of administration,” or the language of bureaucracy (for instance, typed sheets of official-looking letterhead), because they subjected art to the logic of advanced capitalism.10 But Buchloh championed artists like Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren, whose work he believed used the same aesthetics as a way to critique institutions. By deploying the Instruction Manual to occupy the space of an official gallery press release, Vo’s text brings state-sanctioned violence inflicted in another space—the prison—into the space of the gallery. 

The act of marking and claiming space permeates the way Vo presents his objects. Placing pieces like 17.01.1980 (2010)—the artist’s first passport photo—between the gallery’s library and office, and the photo of missionaries and Th. Vénard’s handwritten letter on the wall in the office’s “territory,” Vo abolishes or trespasses upon the institution’s invisible border between art and non-art space, annexing Artists Space in its entirety as part of his installation. Luigi Fassi has mapped this recurring strategy through Vo’s past exhibitions, in which the artist “acknowledges and engages the fact that art institutions do not merely frame but are also enfolded within the historical narratives he traces.”11 The first metal plaque, as well as the list of works and the gallery map etched on a separate plaque, recall markers used to designate heritage sites or acknowledge philanthropic donations that support a structure’s construction or maintenance. This second plaque reveals that the curtains’ embroidered pattern depicts plants collected, indexed, and named after Jean-André Soulié, the French missionary and botanist, who “discovered” these plant species in southern China and Tibet. The indigenous plants stand in for a map of Soulié’s route, marking the territory he traversed and the indigenous peoples he likely encountered. Can Vo, as a contemporary artist, be seen as a missionary, travelling to America to temporarily occupy space and relate his experiences before moving on to another territory in a museum elsewhere? Vo’s route from Vietnam (to Europe) to America reverses that of the missionaries in the photographs, who went from France, another former colonial power in Vietnam, to Asia. By referencing the missionaries’ route and employing metal plaques to mark the gallery, Vo is indexing the space and making a temporary claim to its territory. 

At Artists Space, this move to transcend 
borders and stake out space functions as an 
exhibition of power, one reminiscent of Minimalism’s “cool displays of power,”12 as critiqued by Anna C. Chave. In “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Chave criticizes the Minimalist artists for reinforcing the mid ’60s and ’70s status quo (i.e., the war in Vietnam and brutal displays of police authority at home) by using materials and shapes that reference technology and industry, and on a correspondingly large scale. Her claim that Minimalist artists were indifferent to politics and community and “above personal feeling”13 is being challenged in more recent art historical work,14 but I couldn’t help thinking of how Vo negotiated the gallery space in a way that is reminiscent of Chave’s description of Carl Andre’s timber piece at Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1965. The same year the United States sent regular combat troops into Vietnam and began massive bombings in North Vietnam, Andre installed a timber piece “so massive it almost caused the gallery floor to collapse.”15 In a footnote, Chave offers a reading of Andre’s self-conscious desire to “seize and hold the space” as symbolic of sexual domination; the space/void is coded as feminine.16 In a similar sense, Vo seized and held the space of the gallery by circumscribing its overwhelming absence, which was the exhibition’s most salient quality from the moment one entered it. Vo dominated by outlining and emptying instead of filling and breaking. The timber in Andre’s exhibition was a figure that literally broke the ground, whereas Vo invited the ground—the white-painted columns, pipes, electrical cords, office space, bookshelf, air, etc.—to become a figure in the exhibition. 
In doing so, he enfolded the art institution into the installation, and the distinction between gallery and art object became irrelevant. 

Absence and loss pervades the work of González-Torres, an obvious influence on Vo, whose curtains are an homage to Untitled (Loverboy) (1989). By letting fresh air into the gallery, González-Torres was also concerned with its space/void, the ground, which one normally ignores. He began exhibiting the sheer blue curtains in 1991, often placing them in front of open windows, which allowed the light outside to animate the atmosphere of the gallery.17 In Vo’s installation the windows were closed and the curtains operated as an interstitial element—neither architecture nor autonomous artwork—linking the photos of male intimacy in Vietnam with the gallery. Like Untitled (Loverboy), the curtains in Vo’s installation draped down to the viewer’s toes from above their heads such that one could wrap them around one’s body like a child playing hide and seek. The sheer, embroidered curtain that veiled the photograph of the lone, shirtless man evoked a body suspended between the positions of voyeur and voyee.

If González-Torres, in works like Untitled 
(Go Go Dancing Platform) (1991), made explicit 
the phenomenological male body—and in this case the homoerotic body—implied in earlier Minimalist work,18 Vo makes explicit the male body in wartime, a topic that should have been on the artists’ minds when the first Minimalist sculptures were created. Vo linked the Vietnam War with cultural production as part of an earlier work at Manifesta 7, which presented fourteen vitrines displaying letters that Henry Kissinger wrote to theatre critic Leonard Lyons, who would send Broadway tickets to the infamous former Secretary of State.19 The artist’s first solo exhibition in America went much further than drawing a relationship between war and culture; it provided a queer view of history that deconstructs the simple binaries “enemy/friend” and “subject/object” to create a space in which to envision new alliances. 

Foucault’s proposition that homosexuality be seen as a form of social engagement first appeared in a 1981 interview called “Friendship as a Way of Life,” where he described how an uncomplicated idea of homosexuality—two men having a fleeting sexual encounter—hides what actually causes unease in a sanitary society: that friendship, affection, and companionship between men threatens society with “new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force.”20 Vo’s exhibition was filled with examples of how men have forged emotional bonds throughout history. The photos of Vietnam depict a time and place in which it was socially acceptable for men—both civilians and soldiers—to hold hands and sleep side by side in public. In wartime, love between men in the army is both “provoked and shamed.”21 The image of missionaries holding hands represents the bond of Christian brotherhood, and the handwritten letter discusses both love within a prison and love between fathers and sons (between the missionary and his father, 
as well as the artist and his).22

All the works in the show were readymades, but the non-sexual friendship Vo created with Carrier conversely had no references to quote or representations to appropriate. Carrier’s last will and testament supplants a representation of something that transcends what is known in gay communities as a “rice queen” (a non-Asian man who desires Asian men, presumably for their Asian-ness alone) with a more complicated and a more equitable power dynamic in which a form of non-biological inheritance, a “queer legacy,” is born. The will, in this exhibition, also complicated what Halberstam calls the “time of inheritance,” which refers to an overview of generational time within which values, wealth, goods, and morals are passed through family ties from one generation to the next. It also connects the family to the historical past of the nation and glances ahead to connect the family to the future of both familial and national stability.23 Through the exhibition, a new alliance was represented: one between an American who was a counter-insurgency agent during the Vietnam War and a Vietnamese refugee decades after the conflict took place. This alliance exists alongside their presumed oppositions because they share an experience of social violence.24

Forgoing sexual relations in order to seek friendships is what Foucault termed an “asceticism and renunciation of pleasure”—his method of inventing a manner of being that didn’t yet exist.25 Ascetic historical practice is work one does on oneself as an attempt to make the self appear, which “happily,” it never does.26 His methodology is similar to Vo’s practice, with its “interminable analysis” unfolding through enigmatic installations with recurring sets of objects and motifs. “Ascetic” best describes the aesthetic of Vo’s exhibition: the empty room filled with light abstained from spectacle and was even devoid of colour. Like a camera obscura, the gallery became the chamber where light, reflected by objects outside this time and place, entered and waited to be fixed by the click of a shutter that doesn’t exist and therefore will never close. Vo thereby forged a space of abjection, as Barthes describes it, in which people became spectres suspended in a space where they were neither subjects nor objects of representation. But “ascetic” is a strange word, and Love has rightly criticized Foucault’s relentless approach to history for being anything but devoid of desire and longing. It is more like Autoerotic Asphyxiation.

Review of Danh Vo: Autoerotic Asphyxiation, Artists Space, 
New York, September 15–November 7, 2010

  1. This remark has come up in other reviews. See Astrid Mania, “Danh Vo,” Flash Art (International Edition), March/April 2008, 148 and Luigi Fassi, “Terra Incognita,” Artforum, February 2010, 152.
  2. Heather Love, Feeling Backwards (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 43.
  3. Henry Abelove, quoted in Love, 
Feeling Backwards, 43.
  4. Love, Feeling Backwards, 43.
  5. Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 1.
  6. Ibid. See Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Essential Works, 1954–1984, vol. 1, trans. Robert J. Hurley (New York: New Press, 1997), 136.
  7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 92.
  8. Ibid., 14.
  9. Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art: 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990), 105–43.
  10. Rosalind Deutsche, “Inadequacies,” in Silvia Kolbowski: Inadequate Like… Power (New York: Konig, 2004), 71.
  11. Luigi Fassi, “Terra Incognita,” Artforum, February 2010, 152–59.
  12. Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” in Art in Modern Culture, ed. Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 264.
  13. Ibid., 266.
  14. Julia Bryan Wilson’s Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), makes a case for Minimalism as a politically engaged practice, framed through a redefinition of artistic labour. Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s Being Watched (2008) frames the Minimalist practice of Yvonne Rainer as a politically and socially engaged project. See Julia Bryan Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
  15. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” 264.
  16. Ibid., 278, footnote 4.
  17. Vo’s relationship to González-Torres has been well documented. He was even invited to curate part of González-Torres’s retrospective during its stop at WIELS Contemporary in Brussels (Specific Objects without Specific Form, January 16–May 2, 2010, organized by Elena Filipovic).
  18. Nancy Spector, “Criticism to Collaboration: The 1980s,” in Felix González Torres (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995), 17.
  19. Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy, “Pratchaya Phinthong + Danh Vo,” Modern Painters, December 2008/January 2009, 56–57.
  20. Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” 136.
  21. Ibid.
  22. One could also add that the letter represents love between man and God, who is not a man but gendered masculine.
  23. Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 5.
  24. Love, Feeling Backwards, 51.
  25. Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” 137.
  26. Ibid.
About the Author

Amy Zion is Associate Editor at Fillip.

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