Installation view of DANH’s “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock,” at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2019. All photos by Nick Ash; copyright the artist; courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, London / New York / Paris.

Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock


Marian Goodman Gallery
Denmark USA United Kingdom Vietnam

Shortly after recession hit the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, my father gave up on making money as a musician and went to night school, where he trained in woodworking. For some time after that (years before IKEA became ubiquitous) we spent our days driving around the countryside, buying cheap second-hand furniture that, employing a variety of tools and varnishes, we would transform into antiques. For anybody who grew up around wood, it was the smell of Danh Vō’s new exhibition “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock” at London’s Marian Goodman gallery—which ran concurrently with Vō’s midcareer survey at the South London Gallery—that would have had the most immediate effect. Smell is among the most powerful triggers of memory, and with this exhibition, memory is a good place to begin.

Remembrance of the catastrophe that was the Vietnam War, for instance, is still a force in Vietnam and the United States at both a national and extremely personal level. One of the primary architects of that war, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, died in 2009. Four years later, Vō, whose family fled post-war Vietnam in 1979, acquired some of McNamara’s belongings at auction, and later entered into a correspondence with the deceased’s son, Craig, who owns an orchard specializing in organic walnuts.

Installation view of DANH VŌ’s “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock,” at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2019.
Installation view of DANH’s “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock,” at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2019.

In 2018, when the orchard cleared ten hectares of trees as part of a regenerative process, Vō arranged with Craig McNamara to use the wood in the present exhibition. So it came to be that the spacious ground floor of the gallery was filled with both the sight and smell of raw walnut timber, though it is, in itself, expressly not a work of art but rather a raw material. Upstairs on the gallery’s first floor, Vō has set up a well-equipped workshop with the idea that the buyer of the wood can use the facilities provided to make it—or more likely have it made—into anything they like. Additionally, on the first floor there were several pieces of furniture, beautifully crafted in imitation of makers such as Bauhaus artist Franz Ehrlich and Italian modernist designer Enzo Mari. Again, these were not to be taken as art-objects in themselves, but merely as examples of what might be done with the wood. The only ostensible artwork in the show, in fact, was a fairly unremarkable American flag, from a series of 27, crafted from different tones of timber and mounted against a wall.

Partial installation view of DANH’s “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock,” at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2019.

When my father had finished making an antique, it would go down into a dusty basement showroom where people, often wealthy-seeming, would browse and perhaps buy. In the years since then, a number of questions have occurred to me that I was too young to pose at the time: What made these objects so much more valuable as antiques? Was it the varnish, the fairly rudimentary craftsmanship, the illusion of age, or something even more ethereal, to do with vague projections of invented memory? Visiting Vō’s show a week after opening, at which time it was unclear whether a buyer would even be obliged to use the upstairs workshop to realize their purchases, as opposed to having the wood transformed elsewhere, I was inclined to ask the same question: Where does the value come from?

There has long been a kind of unspoken social contract between private galleries and the general public: The former keep their doors open to all, and the latter view them as benign, even public-spirited institutions, rather than as shops with particularly unaffordable merchandise. Though perhaps a little disingenuous, there is at least an argument that some social value is generated through this transaction. In the case of “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock,” however, where barely any work existed—not even the documentation of some action or concept—all visitors were really privy to was a stage in a commercial transaction, the best possible outcome of which may be realized in private, and constitute little more than someone buying the right to sit on a little piece of history.

Ned Carter Miles is ArtAsiaPacific’s London desk editor.

Danh Vō’s “Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock” is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, until November 1, 2019.

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