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Tombstone for Phùng Vo
A Grave Marker for Danh Vo’s Father Comes to Minneapolis

By Bartholomew Ryan

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” So reads the inscription on a black stone with gold-leaf engraving that will be installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in the spring of 2012. Titled Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010), it’s one of several works by artist Danh Vo recently acquired by the Walker. As one of the curators who worked on the acquisition, it’s my hope that this piece becomes a part of the life of the Twin Cities—that people will discover it and notice as the installation changes over time. In fact, the tombstone itself won’t always be here. On the death of the artist’s father, Phùng Vo, the stone will be shipped to Denmark and placed over his grave in Vestre Kirkegård, a large cemetery in Copenhagen.

Born in Vietnam in 1975, Dahn Vo escaped with his family in 1979, attempting to reach America on a boat built by his father. But chance intervened and the family was picked up by a Danish fishing vessel and soon became citizens of that country. It is in part Vo’s history as a refugee that has given him a profound understanding of the importance of documents, which the artist has described as “equivalent to a performance, since through paper and institutions our society has already determined our movements and actions.”

Just as immigration documents have controlled his family’s movements in life, the Walker’s acquisition of Vo’s work has led to contractual obligations that will impact various activities after his father’s death: among them, Phùng Vo has created a will for the Walker that confirms arrangements for his funeral. In addition to other details, it bequests to the institution four artifacts of personal significance, including a gold crucifix with a chain and three objects based on versions he purchased soon after he arrived in Denmark. These items—a Dupont lighter, an American military class ring, and a Rolex watch—have since been “upgraded” to newer models. Phùng Vo bought them originally because as a recent immigrant from Communist Vietnam, they symbolized a particularly Western brand of success and masculinity.

Whereas the tombstone will rest within the protective enclave of the Walker until it is sent to the cemetery in Copenhagen, these four objects will be part of Phùng Vo’s daily life until he dies. After the tombstone arrives in Copenhagen, the artifacts will be delivered to Minneapolis where they can be installed in a vitrine designed by the artist.

In this regard, the work can be seen as a performance scripted by a series of documents—the contract, the will, export papers, etc.—that enacts itself over many years and involves many players, from Vo family and Walker staff members to the lawyer whose expertise was needed to ensure the purchase and anyone else who finds out about the work and becomes engaged with it over time. It ties one of the key themes of art throughout history—the ephemeral nature of life—to the legacy of conceptual art that introduced, among other ideas, the notion of a life for art beyond its actual material existence. The tombstone is not just the sum of its parts, but also the stories that coalesce around it in its journey from the institution of the museum to the institution of the cemetery.

Buried in Exile

One of the remarkable things about the tombstone is the way in which it manifests relationships and lines of thought that move across geography and history. Relationships, for instance, between two individuals who were buried in exile and one individual who will be, someday.

Near the end of his life, French playwright and activist Jean Genet taught his lover and his lover’s son to mimic his handwriting so they could help him forge the old manuscripts he sold to stay afloat. After his death in 1986, Genet was buried in the Spanish cemetery in Larache, Morocco. When the plaque on his gravestone was stolen, his lover’s son carved Genet’s signature into the rock. Because he was trained to write in Genet’s hand, it was as if the playwright had signed his own grave. This story was a key strand in Danh Vo’s thinking about the tombstone work, as was a visit to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome in 2009, where the artist came across the grave of the Romantic poet John Keats, who died in the city in 1821 at the age of 25 after traveling there to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Largely unknown at the time of his death, Keats asked that the words “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” be carved on his grave. Vo later wrote, “When I first encountered Keats’s tombstone, I believed everybody deserves such a beautiful inscription.”

The artist asked his father, a skilled calligrapher, to make sketches of the inscription. Phùng Vo experimented with a number of treatments before settling on a Gothic type style (prevalent in Rome) because he found it exotic. Using his father’s design, Vo had the inscription carved onto a slab of black absolute granite and inset with gold leaf. At some point in the process, he asked his father if the work could serve as his tombstone. Phùng Vo assented.

All Your Deeds …

The tombstone, which was originally presented at the Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie in Berlin in 2010, is one of several distinct works from that exhibition that have entered the Walker’s collection. When exhibited together, they are titled as one piece, All your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble. The quote is taken from the 17th-century Jacobean play Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher, from which Keats derived his epitaph. As is often the case with Vo, the works were sparely installed within the gallery. They included a printing sheet used by Phùng Vo when experimenting with fonts for the inscription; the floor plan of the original exhibition etched on a bronze plaque (the artist will also create a version for the Walker installation); and an invitation booklet composed from the original Gothic calligraphic sheet, which the Walker may reproduce.

Another element of the work, an ongoing series begun in 2009 of unique works on paper titled 2.2.1861, will also come to an end upon the death of Phùng Vo. Each time the work is acquired, the artist commissions his father to copy by hand a letter from 19th-century French missionary Théophane Vénard, which was written a few days before he was beheaded for heresy in Vietnam on February 2, 1861. Addressed to the missionary’s father as a farewell gesture, the letter’s humble and affecting tone is one strand in a work that also signals the colonial expansion to which Vénard can be seen to have been at the vanguard. After carefully re-creating the letter, which is in French, a language that he does not speak, Phùng Vo sends it via standard mail to the collector who has acquired the work and records the address for his own personal archive. The fact that Vo’s father is Catholic, in part due to complicated historical developments in Vietnam’s history, and Vénard has been beatified as a saint, adds additional layers to the work.

Across the Water

Though the tombstone will not always reside in Minneapolis, the work-as-idea will always be present. In this way, the acquisition draws on the rich vein of conceptual art’s dematerialization of the art object—a core strand in the Walker’s collection.

A piece that also challenges the notion that the Walker’s collection be defined through its tangible possession of objects is Tino Sehgal’s This objective of that object (2004), which was acquired in 2008. This performance-based work has strict instructions attached to it, but leaves no paper trace, no certificate of authenticity or written instructions.

In Kris Martin’s Anonymous II (2009), a skeleton of an unknown person was discreetly buried in an unmarked location on the Walker campus. The work is not visible in the traditional sense associated with visual art, yet its conceptual trace is deeply felt. That, for a time at least, the grounds of the Walker will hold both a body without a headstone and a headstone without a body is one of those coincidences that art can produce outside any specific intentions of artists or curators.

In the future, people wandering through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will come across the rock sunk into the earth amid a line of trees on the fringes of a pathway just feet from the traffic of Hennepin Avenue. Then someday on a return visit, they will perhaps notice that the stone is gone. If they care to dig further, they will realize that it has made the trip across the water to Copenhagen. The stone will remain a part of the collection, though the Walker will have no legal obligation to maintain it over time. Rather, it will act as any gravestone would, kept in good care by the Vo family until the reasons for doing so are forgotten.

Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phùng Vo, 2010

T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011

Installation view at Serralves Foundation in Porto, Portugal, 2010

Walker executive director Olga Viso and Danh Vo sign a contract outlining the terms of the acquisition, July 2011

Danh Vo, If you were to climb the Himalayas tomorrow, 2005

Private collection

This earlier work by Vo contains the original artifacts purchased by Phùng Vo upon his arrival in Denmark.

Danh Vo, 2.2.1861, 2009–

T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011

Last letter of St. Théophane Vénard to his father before he was decapitated, copied by Danh Vo’s father, Phùng Vo. Title and number of existing copies remains undefined until the death of Phùng Vo. Each handwritten text will arrive in an envelope mailed by the artist’s father directly to the buyer.

Phùng Vo re-creates a letter by French missionary Théophane Vénard for 2.2.1861, 2009-

Courtesy the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin

Danh Vo, Untitled, 2010

T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011

Floor plan of Danh Vo’s exhibition at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, October 2010

Danh Vo, All your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble #2, 2010

T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011

Installation view at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, October 2010

Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phùng Vo, 2010

Installation view at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin, 2010