‘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’s Alphabet (D) forms a succinct and powerful declaration. With the artist’s typically potent alchemy of ephemeral objects, a layer of gold leaf shimmers upon a flattened shipping box; a bold, graphic ‘D’ of raw cardboard shows through. Complete with a patina of creases and corrugation, the object tells of travel-worn history. Taken from Vo’s Bowditch Alphabet series, this letter intertwines autobiographical and wider cultural narratives, exploring how systems of language can constitute erasure and oppression as well as communication. Nathaniel Bowditch’s 1802 American Practical Navigator established the 25 naval time zones, ordered by letters of the alphabet (‘J’ was left out due to its absence from Cyrillic script): this Western-centric system helped to establish the shipping routes that fostered colonial enterprise, and still divides up the globe to this day. The alphabet has further significance for Vo, who was born in Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese language’s Classical Chinese written form was obliterated following Jesuit missionary colonisation, resulting in the Latin script of modern Vietnamese; French became the official language of law and government in the 19th century, further cutting the Vietnamese off from their own literary traditions. Vo merges the global with the personal. His first initial is frequently misspoken in the West – in Southern Vietnamese dialect ‘D’ is a different phoneme, and his name is correctly pronounced ‘Yahn’. The letter also relates to another country. At the age of four, Vo’s family fled South Vietnam for the United States; their boat was intercepted by a Danish cargo ship, and they settled in Denmark in 1979. The Bowditch Alphabet’s link to worldwide trade and navigation adds a deep historical resonance to this important chapter in Vo’s life, resulting in a work that forms both deep socio-cultural inquest and textual self-portrait.
As Jason Simon has written, ‘Danh Vo’s cardboard shipping boxes start in the recycling piles, after a product has completed its economic arc. Collected and flattened, they are sent to Thailand where gold leaf is applied ... They return reborn and revalued by their surface rather than their contents. The gold is a visa signalling a new mobility, and an empty container previously filled with Evian or Budweiser, for instance, gets recharged’ (J. Simon, quoted in Danh Vo: Go Mo Ni Ma Da, exh. cat. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2013, p. 82). The Bowditch Alphabet’s evocation of East-West trade is subverted through the artisanal adornment of gold leaf – a typical trimming of idols and shrines of sacred rather than monetary value. The gold’s delicate opulence standing in stark contrast to the tawdry cardboard box, labour, religion, commerce and beauty are all brought into provocative conversation.
Yet another layer is added to this gilt matrix of meaning with a textual relationship to Vo’s father’s profession. In Vietnam, Phung Vo had been a calligrapher; on the family’s arrival in Denmark, he was unable to continue his trade due to the language barrier. Today, Vo’s father produces 02.02.1861: an unlimited hand-drawn edition of an 1861 letter sent by the martyred French Catholic missionary St Jean Théophane Vénard to his own father, written shortly before he was executed in North Vietnam. Phung Vo reproduces the letter by hand in beautiful script, not understanding the French but copying the words as one would copy a drawing. For an agreed sum, he will mail an edition to anyone who purchases the work; Vo has thus employed the systems of the international art world to restore displaced economic power to his father’s handwriting. These reconfigured levels of inscription, understanding, exchange and value illuminate the power and beauty of Alphabet (D): concise and captivating, Vo’s semiotics of culture and history speaks the world’s complexity in a single letter.