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“Mother Tongue” is Danh Vo’s premiere New York gallery show, but the work included couldn’t have been veneered with more layers of history. The spare, quiet exhibition tears apart fragments of property from the estate of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense responsible for the Vietnam War.

Marian Goodman Gallery and Vo acquired 14 pieces of the Secretary’s estate at a Sotheby’s auction, including iconic wares like the pen used to sign the Gulf of Tonkin memo and McNamara’s chair from the Kennedy Administration’s Cabinet Room. The pen, and letters to the President from McNamara, are quietly displayed in light-boxes in a long, dark hallway of the gallery, while the chair is destroyed, its skeleton standing alone in an empty corner of the space, its layers of stuffing and leather dangling from corners of the ceiling.

Personal history is enmeshed in the realities of American politics here, since the Vo family escaped Vietnam on a wooden boat in 1979, intending to reach the U.S. They didn’t make it to the American coast by boat, but they were intercepted by a passing Danish commercial ship, which brought them to Copenhagen. The family stayed.

The careful preservation of so many of these artifacts and mementos from McNamara’s travels prevent a reductive reading of the destruction of the chair: it looks more like Vo is tearing this object apart to find something hidden in it, maybe an answer for how such violence could be achieved so casually, so strategically, by someone accustomed to Kennedy-era refinement.  These artistic interventions in political history seem like another effort for this artist to make notations to the ambiguous, shadowy histories of identity, or identities, really, without giving up on sentimentality and sincerity.

His installation I M U U R 2, on now at the nearby Guggenheim Museum, is a collaboration of sorts with the late artist Martin Wong: I M U U R 2 is a collection of Wong’s objects, toys modeled after American clichés, artworks, and ephemera, generously loaned to Vo from Wong’s mother. The installation further illustrates Vo’s use of curiosity as artistic medium: everything is either art created by Martin Wong, or readymades and found objects. The accumulation makes it an immersive, single artwork.

I M U U R 2 is on display at the Guggenheim Museum, New York through May 27

“Mother Tongue” is open at Marian Goodman, New York through April 27.




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