‘[The Statue of Liberty] is such a strong icon, tracing back to so many histories, and then just discovering the fragility of it... I thought it would be interesting to make something that people felt so familiar with, in all the different ways that people project on the sculpture, and try to destabilize your own thinking of it’ (D. Vo, quoted in H. M. Sheets, ‘Lady Liberty, Inspiring Even in Pieces,’ New York Times, 20 September 2012).
A dynamic swathe of copper drapery, Danh Vo’s We The People (detail) (2011) is both monumental and enigmatic. As part of the vastly ambitious project We The People, it forms a powerful inquest into fractured selfhood, belonging and identity: over two years, Vo recreated the entirety of the 93-metre Statue of Liberty using copper sheets no thicker than two pennies. Rather than assembling its constituent parts into a whole, the artist scattered the 267 sections around the globe. We The People (detail) is a section of the robe toward the statue’s left foot; other elements have travelled to major exhibitions such as a 2014 show at City Hall Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York, and are in public collections including Kunsthaus Zürich. The American ideals of Lady Liberty, which has stood welcoming incomers to New York since 1886, are disjointed and dispersed; the full-scale encounter with her flowing robes in the present work is at once abstracted and curiously intimate. A strikingly dramatic fragment, its mighty and kinetic folds echo Minimalist sculpture as much as a ruined ancient Colossus. Vo raises challenging questions of idealism and nationhood as an edifice of democracy is shattered and displayed to all the world.
A century after Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi began construction on the Statue of Liberty in the 1870s, Vo’s family fled South Vietnam for the United States. Vo was four years old. The family’s boat was intercepted at sea by a Danish container ship, and in 1979 they settled in Denmark, where the artist grew up. Vo’s treatment of the statue is therefore born of a complex experience that is reflected in the work’s fabrication: while its aspirational gleam resonates with his own family’s attempt to reach the United States, We The People also complicates an already layered story. As with much of the artist’s oeuvre, which often employs historically potent purchased objects and family artefacts, personal biography is interwoven with wider global history. Bartholdi’s original statue was a gift from France to the United States after their victory in the American Civil War: Vo’s version was financed by his French gallery Chantal Crousel, manufactured in Shanghai, and shipped to sites all over the world. In an age of global economies and mobile narratives, we are left to put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves.