Feature

Exhibit of the week: Danh Vo: We the People

Vo’s version of Lady Liberty speaks of the dissolution of America’s promise and power.

Art Institute of Chicago and other sites
Through April 7

Lady Liberty hasn’t been seen like this in a while, said Hilarie M. Sheets in The New York Times. Scattered about a terrace at the Art Institute sit five sculpted forms, made from sheets of brilliant copper, that suggest pieces of a puzzle—an ear, a heel, folds of drapery. There are 400 such fragments either being finished or already on display at various locations around the world, and together they replicate, in full scale, the Statue of Liberty. The creator of that potent symbol of freedom, Frédéric Bartholdi, fabricated his 19th-century statue in the same fashion—in sections, using hammered copper sheets no thicker than two stacked pennies. But Danh Vo, a 37-year-old Vietnam native and the recent winner of the $100,000 Hugo Boss prize, has a different end in mind: His puzzle pieces will never be assembled.

That detail aside, Vo’s Lady Liberty is as different from the original “as the world of 1886 is from the world of 2012,” said Lori Waxman in the Chicago Tribune. If the original promised a world united by the idea of freedom, Vo’s version speaks of the dissolution of America’s promise and power. At the Art Institute and a handful of other Chicago-area locations, the fragments “rest as casually as do the ancient scraps that fill the courtyards of archaeological museums around the world.” But besides foretelling a near-future fall of the American empire, they illuminate a present world “where capital moves product from wherever it can be made most cheaply to wherever it is most desired.” Vo’s figures were outsourced to a metalwork shop in China. Like Bartholdi’s, their outsides are beautiful but their insides “are a dingy mess of spatters and slipshod welds.”

A less-noticed exhibit nearby reveals a different side of Vo, said Franck Mercurio in Time Out Chicago. Through Dec. 16, the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society is hosting Vo’s “Uterus,” a collection of small-scale installations that “slowly, quietly captivate the viewer.” One piece is a silicone cast of his mother’s tongue; another is a spray of flowers in a gilded cardboard box. “He resists explaining them in detail so viewers can glean their own meanings,” but our knowledge that Vo’s family fled Vietnam in 1979 colors our interpretations. Nearby is an installation that features 14 letters Henry Kissinger wrote to a friend in the 1970s, thanking him for offers of performing arts tickets and complaining about challenges in Cambodia. The arts and war: That’s mankind in a nutshell.

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