‘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 Võ, 2009.
Danh Võ’s Untitled (2012) is a work of powerful alchemy. A fattened and creased box of beer is transmuted into a precious artefact: its machine-printed lettering and barcodes painstakingly recreated in gold leaf by Thai artisans, the piece of refuse becomes an idol, replete with the trappings of religious veneration and material wealth. Bringing into conversation the artist’s Catholic upbringing and his concerns with global systems of value, power and trade, the work is further weighted with meaning by Võ’s choice of the colonial Tsingtao brand: while in the West it is associated with Chinese identity, the company was in fact founded in Hong Kong by The Anglo German Brewery Co. Ltd. in 1903, and today still enjoys 15% of the country’s domestic market. Võ is fascinated by the ways something so seemingly innocuous as a beer brand can carry deep and difficult associations. He has done similar work with Spanish and Mexican beers: ‘I had been in Spain, thinking of beer brands like León, which has the seal of the Spaniards, and Pacifco, which was made because they were trying to seduce people to think it was a quiet ocean to cross … All this information existed within the idea of the beer brands, and it was obvious for me to want to work with them because it was so perverse’ (D. Võ, quoted in M. Slenske, ‘Uncovering Danh Võ’s Revelatory Practice,’ Blouin Art Info, 22 September 2014).
Võ’s own experience of international identity has been a complex one. His family fed South Vietnam in 1979, when Võ was four years old; the family’s boat was intercepted at sea by a Danish container ship, and they settled in Denmark, where the artist grew up. In the past decade he has worked in Berlin, New York, Basel, Paris, Vietnam, Brussels, Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Bangkok. Through an ever watchful eye he has explored the conjunctions and disjunctions of different ideologies, historical encounters, fragments and ruins, and the unnerving parallels of capitalism and religion. Hybrid talismans such as the present work shift semiotics and= clash multiple perspectives in order to illuminate startling strata of meaning. The encounter of gold and cardboard in Tsingtao is a semiotic displacement that mimics the fluid geographies and lingering privileges of Western cultural imperialism: an ironically opulent gilding of a tawdry relic of mass consumption, the manual labour pointedly outsourced – like the manufacture of We The People (2011), his recreated, fragmented Statue of Liberty – to Asia. As subtle as it is provocative, Untitled is an icon of Võ’s boundary-pushing bricolage, echoing with all the intricacies of living in the world today.