Lot 1090
  • 1090

DANH VO | Alphabet (A)

1,200,000 - 1,500,000 HKD
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  • Danh Vo
  • Alphabet (A)
  • gold on cardboard
  • 102 by 165 cm; 40⅛ by 64⅞ in.
Executed in 2011One work in a 26-part series, each depicting one letter of the Latin Alphabet.


Galerie Buchholz
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Catalogue Note

The Bowditch ‘A’
Danh Vo

I see myself, like any other person, as a container that has inherited these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction. - Danh Vo

Fresh to the auction market, Alphabet (A) confronts us with a stark potent immediacy exclusive only to the first letter of Danh Vo’s iconic Bowditch Alphabet series. In the sequence of 25 works, Vo collected cardboard boxes from Vietnam and breathed new life into them by applying gold leaf to the flattened surface. Emerging from each shimmering patina in the negative form of raw cardboard is a bold graphic alphabet – the 25 letters comprising the worldwide naval code system developed by American mathematician Nathanial Bowditch in the early 1800s. Created with the Western-centric Latin alphabet, Bowditch’s system skipped the letter ‘J’ as it was the most difficult to pronounce in multiple languages. The system became a shipping industry standard that advanced global trade and the potential for colonialization, while Vo’s cardboard came from carton boxes for condensed milk, a foreign product introduced to Thai and Vietnamese consumer cultures through wartime care packages. Vo’s Alphabet series thus intertwines autobiographical and socio-political narratives as it explores how systems of language can constitute oppression as well as communication; and as the very first work of the series, the present lot is highly iconic and emblematic of Vo’s rigorously conceptual and critically acclaimed oeuvre.

A Vietnamese-born Danish artist, Vo’s personal history is inextricable from his art. Soon after the end of the American War, the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict broke out. At the age of four, Vo and his family fled from Vietnam by sea on a boat constructed by his father. They were picked up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by a Danish freighter and were brought to Denmark where the family eventually settled. Accordingly, Vo’s conceptual oeuvre is charged with themes of displaced identity, immigration, colonisation, power structures and global communication. Underpinning all of Vo’s work is a fascination with the phenomena of cultural and commercial cross-pollination associated with globalisation. The artist has said: “I don't really believe in my own story, not as a singular thing anyway. It weaves in and out of other people’s private stories of local history and geopolitical history. I see myself, like any other person, as a container that has inherited these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction. I try to compensate for this, I’m trying to make sense out of it and give it a direction for myself.” (Danh Vo, quoted in Francesca Pagliuca, “No Way Out: An Interview with Danh Vo,” Mousse Magazine, February 2009, online).

In a gracefully elegant and concise manner, the current work embodies the epitome of Vo’s powerful alchemy of multifaceted traces of history and objects. In his treatment of mundane cardboard, Vo’s artisanal adornment of gold leaf references at once the traditional gilding techniques associated with glimmering Southeast Asian temples as well as gold as a universal signifier of value. The glaring juxtaposition between the luxurious gold leaf and disposable consumer goods packaging heightens the idealisation of commercial and commoditized life in the West whilst also creating a dialogue between fine art and everyday throwaway material. The cardboard packaging and its association to commerce and the commodity have proven a valuable material for many of art history’s most innovative artists; notable precedents include Andy Warhol’s iconic Brillo Boxes and Campbell’s Soup imagery, as well as Robert Rauschenberg’s collages made out of found objects varying from paper, fabric to car wheels and stuffed goat. Vo takes up this legacy and transforms the medium of cardboard packaging in his own inimitable manner, extending the canon to interrogate issues of socio-economic globalisation on both a personal and political level.

The present work in particular is exemplary in its featuring of the letter ‘A’, the first letter and first vowel of the alphabet, which bears multiple strands of universally acknowledged significance: a symbol of prestige, an indication of singularity, an implication of segments in geometry and premium grading on quality and excellence. Austere in its typeface and Spartan in its creased cardboard texture, the letter ‘A’ constitutes an ironic commentary on elite theory and power relationships in contemporary global society.  The Latin alphabet bears further personal significance for Vo, who was born in Vietnam in 1975. Following Jesuit missionary colonisation, the original classical Chinese written form of the Vietnamese language was obliterated and replaced by the Latin script of modern Vietnamese. In the 19th century, French became the official language of law and government, further cutting off the Vietnamese from their literary traditions. The present work is thus an outstanding example demonstrating Vo’s modus operandi of employing deceptively simple objects and found texts to meld personal biographical narratives with global politics and histories.

Vo has endured and embraced his own form of globalization through the myriad of exhibitions and residencies in his career; each one has an impact on his work. The artist once claimed: “I don’t believe that things come from within you, to me, things come out of the continuous dialogue you have with your surroundings” (quoted in Daisy Jones, “Danh Vo’s Cinderella story”, Dazed, August 2014). Now regarded as one of the most important mid-career contemporary artists of our time whose oeuvre dissects critical global issues in a uniquely sophisticated and personal manner, Vo is currently being honored with a mid-career retrospective, Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The survey exhibition offers spectators an immersive experience in which one glimpses into the private past and mind of the artist while finding resonances through establishing personal association with the assembled fragments which each has its own set of interpretation possibilities.