Danh Vo

Where the Lions Are

In the original project drawing by Johann Jakob Stehlin, the architect of the large, neo-classical sky-lit room on the first floor of the Kunsthalle Basel – the historical “Oberlichtsaal” – two chandeliers can be made out. An outline of the drawing now figures on the cover of the invitation card to the first major institutional exhibition by Danh Vo, entitled Where the Lions Are.

The exhibition title is a free translation of the Latin phrase Hic sunt leones, which Roman cartographers used to describe unknown territories, such as what is now Vietnam, the country where the artist was born. The title also reflects Vo’s artistic practice: it is both a comment on the interrelationship between Western and non-Western world and a re-appropriation of the title of a group exhibition curated by François Piron at the Para/Site Art Space in Hong Kong (2008), in which Vo participated.

With a history dating back as far as 1839, the Basler Kunstverein (Basel Art Association) brought together a group of innovative artists and patrons to initiate a new institution in Basel, which challenged the traditional role of the museum as a place where works of art are preserved, and instead sought to foster contemporary art practices in the spirit of their time. To raise funds for the construction of a new building, the Kunstverein benefited for several years from the revenue of running a ferryboat that brought people from one side of the river Rhine to the other. Kunsthalle Basel finally opened in 1872.

While the chandeliers of the Kunsthalle probably remained a concept that was not realised, they became part of history in another place: almost every newspaper article that reported the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 at Hotel Majestic in Paris shows a photograph of the hotel’s ballroom with three large chandeliers above the table where the negotiations between North Vietnam, America and South Vietnam took place.

Danh Vo’s ongoing interest in the reasons for France’s involvement in Southeast Asia developed into a new body of work, which will be presented at Kunsthalle Basel. The artist draws on three different archives that link together important moments in the history of Vietnam: the role of the missionaries sent to Southeast Asia by the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris in the 19th century, the official ending of the Vietnam war negotiated in Paris, and elements of Vo’s biography.

Danh Vo combines objects, documents and artefacts against the background of the specific history of the exhibition space. Reminiscent of an archaeologist or a collector, the artist creates an enigmatic setting that investigates the different notions of personal and collective memory as well as the hope for “somewhere better than this place”. He challenges the viewer’s expectations of art and artists – and not least also emphasizes the institution’s role as it was once defined: a place from which to explore the unknown territories of contemporary art.

An artist’s book conceived by Julie Ault, Danh Vo and Kunsthalle Basel has been published on the occasion of the exhibition. It will be available at the Kunsthalle bookshop for CHF 29/EUR 19, with a 15% discount for the members of the Basler Kunstverein.

< Online review on the exhibition at Artforum

< Online review on the exhibition at Regioartline

< Online review on the exhibition at Süddeutschen Zeitung

< Online emission and the opening at Vernissage-TV

The exhibition was generously supported by Peter Handschin.

Danh Vo (b. 1975) is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen and the Städelschule, Frankfurt. He currently lives and works in Berlin. From February to June 2009 he was artist-in-residence at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, where his solo show is currently on view. In 2007 Vo was awarded the blau orange Kunstpreis der Deutschen Volksbanken und Raiffeisenbanken. In 2008 he participated, among other exhibitions, in the Manifesta 7, Rovereto, the Yokohama Triennale, Docking Station, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and in 2009 at the Gebert Stiftung für Kultur, Rapperswil. This year he has been nominated for the Preis der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst, one of the most renowned prizes in contemporary art today.