I see myself, like any other person, as a container that has inherited these infinite traces of history without inheriting any direction.
Iconic and arresting, Red Bull presents a gold-gilded appropriation of the thirteen-starred iteration of the American flag, an image hailing from an era when states were still joining the Union in the founding stages of the nation. The instantly recognisable symbol emerges in thin gold leaf from flattened cardboard refashioned from shipping packaging of Red Bull, a ubiquitous brand currently maintaining the highest market share of any energy drink in the world, with 6.790 billion cans sold per year (as of 2018). Unbeknownst to many, Red Bull GmbH was founded in 1987 in Thailand, when Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz modified the existing Thai energy drink Krating Daeng (literally ‘red bison’) to suit the tastes of Westerners. By emblazoning the star-spangled banner on cardboard boxes that once contained products of the titular energy drink brand, Vo’s Red Bull implicates the United States’ role of advancing global trade and consumerism right from the early stages of the nation’s foundation. Weaving complex socio-political narratives, Red Bull is emblematic of Vo’s rigorously conceptual and critically acclaimed oeuvre.
A Vietnamese-Danish artist born on the evacuee island of Phu Quoc in 1975, Vo’s early life was shaped by his parents’ failed attempt to emigrate to the United States. 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 brought to Denmark where the family eventually settled. Accordingly, Vo’s 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 an elegant and concise manner, the current work embodies the epitome of Vo’s acclaimed alchemy of multifaceted traces of history and objects. The cardboard packaging, collecting at the end of its shipping cycle, carries powerful connotations of migration and transience – themes which resonate with Vo’s own personal experiences of displacement. Vo’s artisanal adornment of gold leaf, on the other hand, references at once the traditional gilding techniques associated with Southeast Asian temples as well as gold as a universal signifier of value. The cardboard packaging and its association to commerce 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. 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.
Likewise, while Vo’s appropriation of the American flag places him within an illustrious lineage of artists including Barbara Kruger, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, his specific choice of the thirteen-starred iteration asserts the specific allegation that the United States’ association with commercialism and globalisation was present from the start and indeed crucial to the nation’s growth. Adam Searle notes: “As well as colonising the world with corporate brands, America colonised itself, building a nation and wreaking havoc on its natives and its ecology” (Adam Searle, “Art among the ruins: Danh Vo’s perverse empires”, The Guardian, 21 January 2015). Vo in particular harnesses the image of the American flag specifically as a fraught signifier of an ideal life in the West seen from afar, juxtaposed against the reality of the country’s reliance on and exploitation of resources in distant countries. In a powerful inversion of values, Vo probes “the myths and symbols that frame the nation’s identity with characteristic duality, amplifying both its brightest ideals and bleakest corruptions” (Katherine Brinson, Exh. Cat. Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2018). 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 was recently honoured with a mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Danh Vo represented Denmark and was also a participant of the Venice Biennale in 2017 and 2019 respectively. The artist was also featured in a recent joint exhibition with artist Isamu Noguchi at the Hong Kong M+ Pavilion.