Liberty in Pieces
Editor's Note: This piece has been translated from the Spanish by the author. It was originally published in DIDDCC for Centro de Arte 2 de Mayo.
Contemporary artist Danh Vo has never seen the 267 metallic pieces of his artwork We The People1 in the shape they compose: a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty. Civil engineer Gustave Eiffel never saw said statue erected in New York, although he designed the internal structure that holds it together.
Lady Liberty stood watch over migrants that traveled light, their ballast left behind. She is not too heavily burdened herself. In the 1870s, the engineer Viollet-le-Duc planned to fill the hollow copper shape with tons of ballast to prevent the grand statue from toppling. Upon his sudden death, the statue’s sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, commissioned the task to a promising young engineer, Gustave Eiffel, already known for his expertise in accounting for wind stress. To prevent the collapse of the goddess Libertas, Eiffel suggested a lightweight solution: erect a skeleton 30 meters high inside the divine figure. Eiffel’s mesh of beams around a central pylon has stood the tests of time and weather, and tirelessly holds up the torch-bearer from the core.
Civil Engineering the Colonies
Eiffel had already designed strong, airy, and elegant railway bridges. And before the 19th century closed, Eiffel completed the iron (now steel) structure to support the Statue of Liberty, inaugurated the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and built several bridges across Indochina’s Mekong Delta, in present-day Vietnam. Foreseeing the new French colony’s need for infrastructure, Eiffel had opened an office in Saigon in 1872. His colonial workshop began installing bridges over canals in Cochinchina, and later developed ports, a railway line, and Saigon’s central post office.
The only great Eiffel monument that survives in Vietnam today, in the opinion of resident historian Tim Doling,2 is the maritime courier bridge in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Built in 1882, the pont des messageries maritimes was restored in 2010, painted pastel green and yellow, and subsequently nicknamed "rainbow bridge" (cầu mống). Romance glows on its single wrought iron arch, dusted with colonial-era lampposts and photo-flashing couples. "Liberty Enlightening the World" was the original name for the statue over Ellis Island, designed initially as a lighthouse. The plan for her to guide boats through the Suez Canal in Egypt fell through, and the project was recycled for America. Perhaps artistic monuments aren’t so site-specific after all.
Sustaining Statues, Not People
Relocation also traverses Danh Vo’s artistic appropriation of the Statue of Liberty: the fragments (or details) of his project We The People are not destined to be united like pieces of a puzzle, but to disperse into art collections around the world. More than 15 countries now house at least one of the copper parts that replicate those of Bartholdi’s neoclassical figure. Despite its solid appearance, the sculpture in the New York bay is a metallic shell only two millimeters thick. Danh Vo grasps the significance of a thin sheet of repoussé metal that can convey such strength. Yet of the 30 tons of copper hammered by hand as thin as the original, not one gram references Eiffel’s sustaining frame. The potent symbol of broken up freedom conveyed by Danh Vo’s disjoined sculpture does not escape viewers, but the absence of the unifying support framework is less evident.
The dame’s skeleton has not been forgotten. Prior to starting We The People, Danh Vo had curated exhibitions that included a 1984 technical drawing of the renovation of Eiffel’s centenarian structure inside the statue, and a 1997 painting by Martin Wong that represents a brickwork structure inside of the Statue of Liberty. In Vo’s project, the scattered parts of We The People need no structural scaffolding to bring them together. The Eiffel structure is not hard to see due to being dismembered and dispersed, like the outer shape. It simply does not exist, just like there is no structure that can unite and sustain desegregated refugees.
People Scattered on the Seven Seas
Atomized waves of global migration pose no threat for a power structure that can’t be shaken by a fragmented group deprived of cohesion. This is possibly more evident now than in the 1970s, when after the Vietnam War more than a million Vietnamese relocated around the world.3 Many Vietnamese in exile reunited in new communities; in Canada, Australia, and the United States. Like the seven rays on Lady Liberty’s crown that point to the seven seas and seven continents, there were migrations in all directions.
Not all of them would congregate in Western suburbs called "Little Saigon." Such is the case of Danh Vo. To avoid the growing danger of the third Indochina war, in 1979 Vo’s family fled Vietnam when Danh was only four years old. Various families traveled in the boat built by Danh’s father, and later rescued by a Danish ship. "I was part of the second wave of boat people who left Vietnam and ended up in Denmark where I lived for 25 years… I had to escape there and I have been on the road ever since."4 Vo admits it was hard being gay and Asian growing up in Denmark, where he was visibly different. In the year 2000, he left the Scandinavian country to live in Mexico City, Berlin, and Frankfurt. Like the maritime messaging bridge in Saigon, instrumental for shipping mail, Danh Vo interconnects and connects himself with different cities with riverine fluidity. "If you engage in building a monumental thing, you should also be able to treat it like water," he says.5
Fathers, Sons, Letters
Without interrupting the flow of packet boats loaded with letters and postcards, the maritime messaging bridge of Saigon delivers us to another artwork by Danh Vo, one of his favorites. 2.2.1861 is an unlimited series of letters handwritten by the artist’s father, the calligrapher Phuong Vo. The letters in the multiplying series are always the same: a copy of the last missive written by the missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard before his execution in 1861. The young French priest was decapitated for proselytizing in Southeast Asian territory before it became the Catholic-friendly French colony of Indochina.
Both writers, Vénard and Phung Vo, share a Catholic faith, but not a common language.6 Phung Vo does not speak French, nor does he understand the sentences of familial affection that he carefully transcribes. Like another Eiffel bridge in Vietnam, the now disappeared swing bridge (Saigon’s pont tournant), a displacement—mechanical or linguistic—interrupts the flow of communication. A turn changed the direction of Phuong Vo’s life, as if his boat had followed the perpendicular movement of the bridge and not the water currents.
It was the swing of a blade that dispelled Vénard’s life: "A light sword will separate my head, like a spring flower that the Master of the garden picks for pleasure,"7 the condemned missionary wrote to his father. The sad news that a packet boat would deliver to his forebear in distant France announces a hopeful journey. "Father and son will rejoin in paradise. Myself, little ephemeral, I go first."8
All manner of father-son relations are suggested by the Vo father and son teamwork. Danh is not the only artist who makes art with the help of his father. For a performance titled Inheritance, artist Le Vu lay under his father who read pages from a classic of Vietnamese literature.9 In both artworks, a blood bond is darkly manifest in the form of commercial exchange or signs of oppression—with references to the traditions and religions that each inherits. And yet these works are created precisely because of a paternal love that generously facilitates co-creation.
In a crowd, however, the interpersonal links between individuals are harder to spot. From the outside, we cannot see the grid that bolts together the pieces of the Statue of Liberty, although that pioneering mesh of beams allows one to enter the monument. The giant dame is the first statue that gave public access to her inner complexities. Thanks to Eiffel, liberty has a door to the subconscious, and we can enter the darkness of her traumas.
Breaking up the outer layer of the statue, Danh Vo has liberated the deep, unconscious memories of bonds of union. His artistic practice appears to build bridges, some of them swing bridges, that cross geographies, cultures and generations to connect decentered ideas. Those connections become all the more potent in the least apprehensible of his artworks. The details of We The People are an uncontrolled migration of artifacts, whose global distribution prevents viewers from reconstructing the complete picture of liberty, yet manifests a multitude of nuances around the concept.
Freedom as Fragments
If there was a time in which the movement of people across the world seemed to be the epitome of freedom –allowing Gustave Eiffel to work in various continents or world migrants to sail into an American dream—We The People suggests that nowadays the opposite is true. Displacement is today a symptom of lack of freedom. The copper pieces of art travel to one destination or another conditioned by market forces. Or, in the case of the artist’s personal history, the freedom to remain in one’s homeland implied the risk of losing one’s freedom.
During the years of making the artwork, as each copper “detail” was finished, it was sold and shipped to international galleries and museums. From a market perspective, We The People is a reaction to investment collecting. This dispersion planned by Vo prevents massive accumulation, it limits the power of institutions and investors, who could otherwise bulk buy and speculate, even take control over the exhibition of the work.
To date, art exhibitions worldwide have shown single pieces or small groups of the metal fragments of We The People. The displays have used all manner of devices, from propping the objects on floor or wall, to placing them on wheeled platforms, or suspend them from improvised scaffolding. Margrethe Troensegaard admires the artwork’s multifaceted subversion: "the exhibiting institution steps in and takes over where the bearing structure of the work-as-statue (intendedly) fails, and in the stead of Eiffel’s ingenuous steel structure stands a no less intricate web of cultural engineering as a support structure for the deconstructed monument as artwork."10
If Eiffel’s last great work in Vietnam is a bridge that is currently more decorative than practical, the latest great work by Danh Vo, to date, bridges the waters of a neoclassical greatness to give back strategic power to a monument whose own iconicity had reduced it to mere decoration.
- 1. The title We The People references the first three words in the Constitution of the United States. Fittingly, this brief text also appears on the identification page of USA passports.
- 2. Across Vietnam, a number of bridges built by Maison Eiffel are still in use today, although some have been so significantly altered during restoration or maintenance work that the original design could be disputed. Tim Doling, “Eiffel’s Pont des Messageries Maritimes, 1882”, Historic Vietnam, 15 January 2014, www.historicvietnam.com/the-rainbow-bridge-a-true-eiffel-classic/.
- 3. “A million Vietnamese were dispersed around the globe. It will take more than a generation for the wounds to heal.” Trinh Thi Minh Ha, in her film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam. The figure of around a million people is confirmed by Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History, New York: Viking Press, 1983, p. 4. On her part, refugee Carina Hoang estimates that one and a half million people fled Vietnam between 1975 and 1996. Boitran Huynh-Beattie, “Carina Hoang’s ‘Boat People’: Short Stories, Long Memories”, Diacritics, 7 July 2011, http://diacritics.org/?p=6191.
- 4. Kylie Knott, “Art's J. D. Salinger', Danh Vo, wants his work at Hong Kong show to speak for itself: He's considered the J.D. Salinger of the art world”, South China Morning Post [Hong Kong], 28 December 2014, p. A.3.
- 5. Hilaire M. Sheets, “Lady Liberty, Inspiring Even in Pieces”, New York Times, 23 September 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/arts/design/danh-vos-we-the-people-project-in....
- 6. In her insightful critique of Danh Vo’s practice, though with no reference to We The People, Claire Bishop explains that Phung Vo’s conversion to Catholicism was due to political reasons, and she expands on issues around mother tongue, pp. 327-328. Claire Bishop, “History Depletes Itself”, Art Forum, September 2015, pp. 324-330, https://www.artforum.com/print/201507/claire-bishop-54492.
- 7. “Un léger coup de sabre séparera ma tête, comme une fleur printanière que le Maître du jardin cueille pour son plaisir.” Text from the letter written by Jean-Théophane Vénard for his father, legible on any of Danh Vo’s artworks from the series 2.2.1861.
- 8. Ibid. “Père et fils se reverront au paradis. Moi, petit éphémère, je m’en vais le premier.”
- 9. Le Vu’s artist statement about his performance in Vietnam in 2004: “I want to talk to my father about how much I suffer. I want to talk to my father about how much he suffers. I want to talk to my father about how much we suffer. In the simplest way possible: pressing myself against him.”
- 10. Margrethe Troensegaard, “What’s in a Name? Questions for a New Monument”, Stedelijk Studies 4, August 2016, p. 10, www.stedelijkstudies.com.