165° W
gold leaf on cardboard
91 x 173 cm. (35 7/8 x 68 1/8 in.)
Executed in 2011
Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Sale room notice
Please note that the nationality of the artist should read Vietnam/ Denmark and not as stated in the printed catalogue.

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

A flattened shipping box is covered with a shimmering field of gold leaf. At the centre, a bold, graphic ‘X’ of raw cardboard shows through, displaying the branding of a Thai manufacturer of plastic beverage lids. Complete with a patina of stains, creases and corrugation, the object tells of a travel-worn history. At the bottom left, the David Bowie lyric ‘Time he flexes like a whore’ is stencilled in gothic script amid the gold, applied by Vo’s calligraphist father, Phung Vo. In its captivating alchemy of ephemeral matter, Danh Vo’s 165°W makes a succinct and powerful statement. The work is taken from the artist’s Bowditch Alphabet series, which intertwines autobiographical and wider cultural narratives to explore how language can constitute erasure and oppression as well as communication. The ‘Bowditch Alphabet’ refers to the industry standard set out in Nathaniel Bowditch’s 1802 American Practical Navigator, which established twenty-five naval time zones ordered by letters of the alphabet (‘J’ was left out due to its absence from Cyrillic script). Bowditch’s West-centric system helped to establish the shipping routes that fostered colonial enterprise, and it still divides up the globe to this day. In 165°W, whose title is a line of longitude, the evocation of that vast transactional sweep of East-West trade is subverted through Vo’s artisanal adornment of gold leaf: a typical trimming of idols and shrines of sacred rather than monetary value. Bowie’s words add a pop-edged tinge of memento mori. The gold’s delicate opulence stands in stark contrast to the tawdry cardboard box, and labour, religion, commerce and beauty are all brought into provocative conversation.

The alphabet has multi-layered 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 vernacular literary heritage. Vo’s own 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 global always merges with the personal. 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 backdrop to this important chapter in Vo’s life, resulting in a work that forms both socio-cultural inquest and textual self-portrait. In Vietnam, Phung Vo had been a calligrapher, but the language barrier in Denmark meant he was unable to continue practicing his craft: with the gothic interjection in the present work, Vo offers his father a new mode of expression. We are all at the mercy of time, and are shaped by what has gone before us. Vo’s ‘X’ becomes a beautifully resonant sign, throwing manifold complexities of meaning, history and value into striking relief.

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