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Danh Võ, Good Life, 2007.
Danh Võ, Good Life, 2007. Hunter, Mekong Delta, 1972. Collection Alpegiani, Torino. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photographer: Nick Ash.

Danh Võ's Cinderella story

Speaking to the conceptual artist about his first major UK exhibition sponsored by Hugo Boss and what it's got to do with the Brothers Grimm fairytale

Danh Võ hasn’t had the simplest of lives so far. After being born in Vietnam in 1975, the communists’ victory and fall of Saigon meant that he was eventually granted political asylum in Denmark, where he was raised. City-hopping from Berlin to Frankfurt and New York, Võ has become a widely exhibited performance-inspired conceptual artist, upholding residencies from Los Angeles to Paris. Winning the Hugo Boss prize back in 2012, his solo exhibitions have graced the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, Kunsthalle Basel, Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel and the Steledijk Museum Amsterdam.

Conceptually, Võ’s work explores the intersections of personal experience and major historical events, including the impact and mutations of Catholicism as it spread through colonisation. “I don’t believe that things come from within you,” he has previously commented. “To me, things come out of the continuous dialogue you have with your surroundings.” An idea constantly reflected in his work as he uses objects that evoke the historical circumstances that shape contemporary life, working with documents, photos and the work of other artists to address issues of identity and belonging. One of his most well-known ongoing projects has been to marry people and immediately get divorced, in order to undermine and question convention and institutions (and create a lot of paperwork).

This month, Võ comes to the UK to exhibit his work at the Nottingham Contemporary, in a show sponsored by Hugo Boss. We had a chat with him about how travelling has affected his art, his fascination with Cindarella and why he was at art school for too long. 

You've travelled to quite a few places to exhibit your work including studying in Copenhagun and Frankfurt and having residencies in Los Angeles and Paris. You've also lived in Berlin since 2005. How has travelling affected your artwork?

Danh Võ: I have affinities to many locations. Some because of the food, others because I have friends there, and others because I want to discover more about that place in the future. For me it was crucial to get out of Denmark. It's a very nice place, but you should try to live there for 25 years. Berlin was an exciting place to be as an artist. But things have changed a lot since my generation of artists started to move there. My first apartment cost me €170. Now it's much more. Travelling has been very important to me. I learn far more from empirical experience than sitting and reading a book. In that sense, I think I’m very lucky to have seen as much as I have. I have a curiosity for exploring new things and as long as I still enjoy it, I still want to travel as much as I can. I think there are many people who lose this curiosity. They stay where they are, and are comfortable about that. I think people get caught in the daily routine, and become fearful of stepping outside of this. Of course, I do worry that I will eventually settle down.

Does this curiosity drive you to experimenting into new directions?

Danh Võ: I think there are two kinds of artists. There are those who have systems to work within and I fall within the other category. I like to explore many different kinds of art forms, and even different ways of hanging. I like to work with trash, and also precious materials like gold; basically just working in contradictions. That's far more consistent with the way I see life.

"The figure of Cinderella was created a bit like the lottery system today. It gives people the dream that if you’re good and behave, good things will happen to you. I really don't believe in that. Being passive doesn't work, it won't get you anywhere." – Danh Võ

Last year you collated nearly 4,000 small artworks, artefacts and tchotchkes that once belonged to artist Martin Wong and exhibited them for your show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. You have said previously that you can be ‘seduced by objects’. What do you mean by this?

Danh Võ: Maybe I was just at art school for too long! I'm always interested in why objects should exist. I like concrete forms. I can love a colour for its intensity, but also for the memories it invokes. Objects can be attractive for their form and shape, but also for the meaning we give them. The Good Life photos, which are included in this exhibition in Nottingham, were taken over a period of 11 years. These photos are very small, but I wanted to tell the story that connects these items. I think it's important for us to emphasize the relationship we have with objects and not just the objects themselves.

Let’s talk more about your latest exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary.

Danh Võ: One of the reasons why I wanted to engage in this exhibition was to see my work in relationship to the works of Carol Rama, whose exhibition runs simultaneously. I'm attracted to figures like Rama, and other female artists; they had to fight for their spaces. When she was making her art, it was being burnt by the fascists. We live in a different kind of time today, but looking at and discovering works by artists like her forces you to shape your own production.

When I think of inspiration – I think I better shape up, because so many great things exist out there. Artists like Rama make me see this, and set the bar for reasons why artists should make art – not just for the sake, for instance, of putting out all this shit out there, which many artists do and I don’t exclude myself from that accusation.

How does your fascination with the tale of Cinderella play into this?

Danh Võ: Cinderella by The Brothers Grimm, is a big part of the installation at Nottingham Contemporary. Part of this has been written out by my father, and included in the exhibition. People often think mistakenly that Cinderella represents me in this, but that was never my intention. In the tale, Cinderella’s two sisters have to sacrifice something — the one her heel, and the other a toe – in order to fulfil the dream of being a princess. I always thought that me and my father are the sisters of Cinderella. Any social system that people have to fit into usually entails some bloodshed. The figure of Cinderella was created a bit like the lottery system today. It gives people the dream that if you’re good and behave, good things will happen to you. I really don't believe in that. Being passive doesn't work, it won't get you anywhere.