This artist talk with Danh Võ expands the perspective of the online publication Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran beyond the specific Iranian context. Võ is a globally active postconceptual artist who aims to unite art and life in view of sustainability.
On March 28, 2022, Hannah Jacobi, her little daughter Mina, and I, Sabeth Buchmann, visited Danh Võ at Güldenhof in Brandenburg, eighty kilometers northwest of Berlin. The artist, known for his postconceptual exhibition scenarios, developed the former estate into a collective project involving among others, two gardeners, a carpenter, and his studio manager. Güldenhof is already part of Võ’s artistic identity, a number of other journalists, art critics, and curators have visited before us. The project’s focus lies on flower and plant cultivation. Võ’s interactions with the architecture (including the residential building, greenhouses, an indoor garden, and a storage hall) are reminiscent of the artist’s spatial environments. Notably, his solo exhibition at Secession in Vienna (September–November 2021), in which he combined elements characteristic of his installations (see also Sabeth Buchmann, Testing History) with flowers such as nasturtium grown on a raised bed in Secession’s courtyard. This use of plants and environment might be seen as a kind of “bio art.” It brings to mind works by artists like Tita Giese (b. 1942), Christian Philipp Müller (b. 1957), and Lois Weinberger (b. 1947).
Our conversation starts in the garden.
Sabeth Buchmann: Danh, what interests you in running an agricultural project?
Danh Võ: For me, this means a total reversal of time. The development of a garden implies another system, one that requires a different commitment and engagement. I try to contrast the art economy and marketing of the food industry with a different concept of beauty. This also includes the process of composting. Plant breeding requires a different way of looking at things.
SB: Garden, environmental, and land art are of crucial relevance within the history of the avant-gardes and post-avant-gardes. At the same time, in 2012, dOCUMENTA (13), under the direction of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, showed and promoted a trend that could be summarized under the concept of “cohabitation”: a trend that is evident in ecofeminism as well as in the current popularity of animal studies. Does this trend influence your work?
DV: Artists are becoming more and more interested in processes of vegetation. With that comes the possibility of living a different life from the one dictated by the art market, which only mirrors a narrow thinking.
SB: Does the farm serve to establish a completely different infrastructure for your work than that practiced until recently? What does that mean for your art? For your exhibition at Secession in Vienna you combined your oft-repeated ready-mades — ancient sculptures of saints, crates, marble pieces, copper sections of the Statue of Liberty — with real plants and images of plants presented in grids. What connects your earlier, pre-farmhouse production and your current interest in ecological systems? I ask this since your approach reminds me of anthropologist Brian Larkin’s notion of “infrastructure,” which he uses to describe how establishing a system produces further systems and becomes networked with them. Is that what you are pursuing with your project — a connection of the cultural field or the art and exhibition market with ecosystems?
DV: I’m totally interested in this. But the biggest work I’m undertaking now is to deconstruct the system I’ve been sitting in. I’m thinking about how the whole structure of the art world is not functioning. You find yourself caught up in a system that, in so many ways, doesn’t make sense. It’s about stopping sense-making.
SB: But inhibiting sense-making is one of the core beliefs of the modernist concept of art.
DV: The modernist approach is about deconstructing the ideologies we are surrounded by. But today there is this explosion of information, it’s like the ideologies themselves have fragmented. I think we have to try to gather some threads together in order to make sense of it.
Since it’s a cool spring day, we move the conversation from the garden into one of the greenhouses. Danh offers Hannah and me a taste of a very delicious and spicy leafy vegetable — mustard greens — and explains, “This is what we eat over the winter.” We continue our talk while surveying the plant’s cultivation.
SB: Can we make sense against the capitalist logic of “making sense?”
DV: I’m much more practical minded than creative. I look at what the gardener Christine Schulz is doing. She loves tomatoes. She loves to cultivate plants. When I ask her about edible weeds that just grow and don’t need to be cultivated, she asks me, “Why should we grow them when we can grow spinach?” When I speak about sense-making, I also ask, “What is this creation of desire?” This is what penetrates most of the things I’m thinking about. What is it that creates our desires? Growing and eating this or that? Choosing this flower or that one? Is my desire, in the end, controlled by me or by others?
SB: Is it a question of how one can form and change the direction of one’s own desires, and also those of others?
DV: It’s about questioning one’s own desires. I think I’ve had enough teachers and priests in my life. What is the cost-benefit of building all these structures in order to produce all these semi-good tomatoes, in comparison to those from Italy, for example? How do we make these choices?
SB: Is the combination of art and ecology then a continuation of or a break within your practice? Do you plan to both work within and outside the art world and market? What does your investment in gardening mean for your exhibition activity?
DV: I feel that I’m in another place. At the same time, it is a continuation in the sense that my thinking is almost the same. Instead of doing four shows a year, I’ll be doing one thing for years. That is what I wish to do. The best thing would be if I had a flower shop. It’s about deconstructing a structure that you’ve been bound by. I have been fortunate to be quite commercially successful, to have galleries asking me to do shows. Last year, while I had these big shows in September and October, we had the potato harvesting here and I was totally overtired. That was ultimately the thing that made me realize I can’t do exhibitions in the fall. Because there are other things to do. It’s perhaps only a wish, you have to weigh things and make your decisions. I would like to only do exhibitions in January and February — the months that nobody else wants. That’s the season when the garden has a rest.
SB: There are many crucial points right now that we could follow up on. Your desire to run a flower shop embodies your entanglement in gardening on the one hand and in aesthetics in terms of art and design on the other. What’s interesting for me about it is that it’s a regular business idea. Since you’re an artist who is in high demand and frequently exhibited around the world, the flower shop could also serve or be seen as a local showcase. For you, is this idea of a flower shop a shift away from the art world and market, or still connected to it?
DV: That is something I still have to figure out. I’m a very good businessman. I can participate in thinking things through. I speak with the farmers and go to the flower shops. I look at why they choose certain things. But what capitalism is so fucking brilliant at is stealing people’s time so that they cannot think about what they do anymore. It doesn’t matter if you have a cheap flower shop or a fast-food store or even a fancy restaurant — there’s no difference: everyone is working their asses off. When I try to have discussions with the shop or restaurant owners, I notice that they don’t have the time.
SB: Since you stress the meaning of having and producing time, such decisions like running a shop make it necessary to integrate people into your time management. I mention this also because a strong conceptual moment in your objects is their “lifetime” and the awareness of death. I think of the tombstone you designed, which marks the anticipated end of your father’s letter project 2.2.1861 (2009). In other words, your works always reflect their dependency on human labor and time. Is this aspect also relevant to your garden project?
DV: If you had come into the yard here a few years ago you would have seen these big poplar trees. They were really dangerous, since they had these gigantic branches that were falling off. We had to cut them down. The first thing I told Christine is that we need to order big trees. She answered, “If you plant big trees, I won’t work with you anymore. If you plan to have trees, you have to plant small ones and let them grow.” I was like, “What?” That example demonstrates damage done to me by my work. As an artist, I choose a big stone here and some metal there — whatever I need. Suddenly I was sitting there and was confronted with someone saying no. And then I planted hundreds of these small trees (gestures toward the trees).
Five years later, I think you have to plant small trees. That’s a way of changing perceptions. That is how my brain changed. In art, it’s all about presentation. But when you plant a tree, you have to imagine it and to think beyond your own time. That has been a fundamental change for me. I can now imagine the tree.
SB: This point brings me back to the meaning of your project for thinking of — or, better yet, thinking in — infrastructures. Because that means an acknowledgment of dependencies on and one’s own embeddedness in an economy of reproduction. Your decisions depend on other people’s decisions, as well as on given conditions.
DV: You have to confront yourself with the problems. You don’t get always what you want. There is this kind of resistance that you need in order to question your choices.
SB: What does this mean for your working with or within family systems? You were born in Vietnam, your family is one of the so-called boat people, and you grew up in Denmark before you went to study at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. These experiences shaped your artistic language and the form of your work, especially the collaboration with your father. I think, for example, of the already mentioned letters that a French missionary in Vietnam in the late nineteenth century wrote to his father the day before his execution, which your father, Phụng Võ, who knows calligraphy, repeatedly copies. Are such entanglements of meanings within the colonial system and the way you address them via the construction of a family business also relevant for your agricultural project?
DV: I used to work with a carpenter named Gerhard. He created boxes, and in them he built nests. When he constructed his bedroom, he started from the ideal of a bird nest. He concluded that birds take whatever they find in order to build a home. He translated that concept by taking a tree trunk, from which he had to use everything for his project. I was like, “Excuse me, what planet are you from?” It was one of those moments in which you ask yourself how the human brain comes up with creating such a beautiful thing.
SB: Do you know the work of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), especially the so-called Babylonests (1973)?
DV: Of course!
SB: That is probably the same idea, referring back to Kurt Schwitters’s (1887–1948) Merzbau (1923–37), but much more heterogenous. Oiticia also used things from his environment to build spaces that were at once private and semipublic on the margins of the art world. Since they were also used for the consumption of cocaine and as a meeting point for mostly queer people, they were of course illegal. He constructed the Babylonests during his time in New York City in the early and mid-1970s. His strategy to disconnect from the world and at the same time to connect to the subcultural milieu obviously differs from your model of retreat, though.
DVD: I’m not retreating from the art world — I am rethinking my relation to it.
SB: But the art market and its institutions thrive exactly on such a kind of thinking. There is a desire to integrate critical subjectivities and narratives, like in your work. You are a super smart artist, now living in the countryside, whose newest project outside the art world has made it into the New York Times Magazine.
DV: Let me explain what happened. I was contacted by the New York Times Magazine, and I didn’t answer them for two months. They wanted to send a photographer to take pictures of my garden. I met up with a friend who knew the journalist. She asked me, “Why don’t you answer them?” I said that I’m not interested in a New York Times art feature of Güldenhof. But my friend told me that this journalist was really interested in facilities, cultivation, and specifically these kinds of gardens. “Why don’t you just talk with her?” So, I wrote to the journalist, and when I told her where I live in Berlin, she asked me whether I knew this magical flower shop. I said that I live in Schöneberg on top of a flower shop. Then she told me that that was the one, and that she was totally mesmerized by it.
The story is this: There was a flower shop in my neighborhood, and I was friendly with the owner, Thi Oanh. I would often pay her to cook some Vietnamese food for my home. She was having problems with her landlord, and she really liked my space: I had a studio underneath my Schöneberg apartment, a beautiful nineteenth-century shop where I only stored some crates at the time. I had a look at her 10 year contract. The new owner had just pumped up the rent, and it included yearly hikes. She thought that she could manage that situation at the beginning — but it was becoming too much. So, I told her to come over to my place. There were a lot of contract difficulties with the other landlord but we got through them, and she negotiated a much more manageable deal with me. She moved into my space; we restored it, installed a sink, and so on.
SB: What does that experience mean to you?
DV: It is the most beautiful thing I was ever engaged in. Of course, it was still my space. Therefore I wanted to control its aesthetics a little bit. They wanted to have a marquee, but I didn’t want that. Instead of hanging a sign in front, I put a light shining into the store, so that people can see that it is a flower shop. I had the studio build pedestals for the front window. When I started to look into farming, I asked myself what can be used as flowers that cannot be eaten as a vegetables, so as not to waste it — such as this kohlrabi flower. That year I took all the mutants from the farm to put them in the flower shop, and we would arrange them nicely as a window display.
Hanna Jacobi: What did the shop owner think about your offerings?
DV: She loved it — it looked beautiful. But back to the story: Dieu Thanh, the flower shop owner’s daughter, who joined her mother’s business around the time they moved into my shop, was really open to engaging with a new concept. She was twenty-nine years and had grown up with an awareness for the future of the planet and all that. She was interested in the farm and how we could have a more sustainable flower shop, but she also said that there are limits and it is also a business that has to function. I was very much into the whole thing and actually overstepped my role. Her mother was really hurt. She never told me directly, though. It turned out that I never took her into our considerations. I had this idea of a more sustainable flower shop, but that was not her reality. Her work schedule was from eight in the morning to eight in the evening. Three days a week, she went to the flower market at five o’clock in the morning. But she managed it all. She was an immigrant who had created this business while raising two kids and sent them to school. And then I came and told her that what she did was wrong, basically. And I had to ask myself, “Who do I think I am?”
I went with her to the flower market, where I had never been before. And you realize that, if you have to work seventy hours a week, you don’t have time to socialize. But she did so in the early mornings, at the flower market, where lots of other Vietnamese people are hanging out — it was her social life.
SB: How did the story then get into the New York Times Magazine?
DV: I’m jumping around a little bit. It was this story that I told the journalist from the New York Times Magazine, who was fascinated by the transformation of the shop, which she had personally witnessed, because she also lived in the neighborhood. I didn’t want to have yet another article about my work. At last, they decided to publish a single article on the flower shop, without mentioning my name. That was really beautiful.
In the meantime, we have wandered through the courtyards, gardens, and lawns, as well as some of the buildings. After our delicious lunch, we stop in what seems to be an interior garden filling an entire building, perhaps a former barn, with a greenhouse roof.
HJ: Is this where you experiment, or Christine?
DV: Both. She comes from a very practical approach — plant nursery and such things. And what I do is quite different. This is not actually a greenhouse, because we only get light from the top, not from the side. So we are experimenting with different plants and climates. I am very much into trees now, and sometimes I become a bit crazy about it. I saw these beautiful pomegranate trees in Italy, and I thought, “I know that this is not good, but I’m buying them anyhow.” Instead of building architecture according to our own desires, we have to start from the trees that we want to have in here. When we got the pomegranate trees, it made us think about how to structure the building.
HJ: The online publication we are doing this interview for looks at conceptual tendencies in modernist and contemporary art production in Iran. Via this conversation with you, as well as another, older text by Sabeth, this focus is broadened in the direction of a global conceptualism. With the context of Iran in mind, it is interesting that you have two pomegranate trees in the middle of this garden in Brandenburg. In Iran, the pomegranate is considered a cultural and national symbol, which has been and continues to be very important for art and literature, but also of course for the local cuisine.
DV: I love pomegranate, including because it has really travelled through different cultures. This is why we have Granada in the Andalusia region of Spain — because this is where the pomegranate was introduced to Europe. Pomegranate is a very strong tree.
SB: Seeing this garden reminds me of your recent installations.
DV: Totally. It arrives from being here. Every time I have an exhibition, I’m thinking of what I would like to do here, on the farm.
SB: Do you see Güldenhof as a studio or more as a hybrid place?
DV: This was never meant to be a studio but a storage space. I never thought too much about it, but what I realized was that most works made in studios are made to fit into white cubes. You think about how they function in the art space. But I think about how the works function out here.
SB: I have to think of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) here. He used to live in his studio space in Paris. Even when he was rich, he forced his wife to live under very unsettled conditions. He had a problem when gallerists and curators came to get his works — he often destroyed his sculptures, insisting they were not good enough. When he later agreed to a big solo show — I think it was at the Tate Gallery in London — he moved his whole studio into the institution’s basement. He wanted the visitors to see the works as part of an ongoing process. This was a truly modernist belief in the impossible masterpiece.
DV: It was the same with Constantin Brâncuși (1876–1957). Do you know the recent documentary about the art collector Peggy Guggenheim [Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, 2015]? When the war broke out, she immediately went to Paris to buy older artworks. And, of course, Brâncuși didn’t want to give her his works at first. I think she then had sex with him — and he was crying afterward. And she never figured out whether he cried because they wouldn’t see each other again for a long while or because she took his best pieces.
We walk from the workshops, where we met Fred Fischer, the carpenter and looked at a sound sculpture of one of Võ’s artist friends, back towards the house and discover some more structures such as a large stack of casually arranged, rough-cut marble blocks.
HJ: Do you see these as art installations out here?
DV: No, I think there are too many sculptures in the world. What I’m interested in, is: How do you build a framework for things coming into being? So I said, “Fred, you make a wood workshop, and you take care of it. I can participate in the discussions about it, about what should be done, but it has to come from you.” I have a friend who is a marble dealer. He was bankrupted years ago, but he still had some stones around. He asked me if I wanted them. I didn’t know what to do with the marble, but then I saw these beautiful stones and I said, “Whatever, I’ll take them.” And now they are here.
SB: Some of these marbles pieces were in the Secession show. Now I know where they come from.
DV: Yes, but only small pieces. My friend always wanted me to do something with marble. But I said, “What shall I do with it? I don’t know that much about it.” Then we bought a prefab chicken coop — like this.
We approach a chicken coop with a rooster and a few hens between huge blocks of marble. Võ shows us images on his phone of another chicken coop currently under construction that will be lined with marble on the inside.
HJ: To fill it with marble …
DV: They are just finishing it now. It is so beautiful. You can’t see that it is a marble house from the outside — only if you go inside, in order to clean it or to collect the eggs. Sometimes I can’t help myself and I go a little bit crazy.
Back at the house, we take a seat in a copy of the famous Safari sofa designed in 1968 by the Italian design studio Archizoom Associati, known for its so-called anti-design. Võ tells us about his collaborators — Christine Schulz and Fred Fischer, to mention two of the people working with him here at Güldenhof — and how one of the reasons they work with him is to have some freedom in terms of working conditions and projects. For example, Fischer receives a base salary, leaving him free to decide which jobs — including those from Võ — he wants to take on.
SB: Do you think of your project as a type of collectivization?
DV: I don’t know what it is — I can’t really define it yet.
SB: I mean in the sense of sharing money and other things.
DV: No, I don’t do this because of charity. For me, it’s a way of learning. I’m doing this because I want to know how to grow a garden, how to work with wood.
HJ: I was asking myself, what do Christine and Fred think of your experimental garden, the chicken coop with the marble, and all the other things?
DV: Christine, she thinks I’m crazy — for sure. But I think she is crazy, too. For example, the story with the chicken starts with her. She wanted to save a rooster from being killed, but in order to do that, she needed to get some chickens too. That’s how we ended up with the chicken coop — that now has marble on the inside. But yes, of course, I have been living in this absurd world with these super rich people and all its super fancy shit.
SB: But you have profited from this world, which essentially provided the means for you to be able to do this huge project now.
DV: Of course.
SB: Do your farmhouse and property serve as a retreat from the art world?
DV: Yes, but I didn’t know it when I started retreating. I knew after the show at Guggenheim [in New York] in 2018 [ Take My Breath Away ] that I — that we — needed a break. Marta Lusena, my studio manager, had at that point worked ten years with me. I had never prioritized the people working with me, even though as an artist the studio is the backbone of your practice. But, nevertheless, people stayed, spending the best years of their careers with me.
SB: Did Marta move with you here?
DV: Yes, she has her own apartment. This property is like a small village, and it is built for the long term. This is the ambition I have.
SB: Do you think that the knowledge of your project here could or should change my — the viewer’s — reception of the meaning of your installations, of the relation of their elements? I think again of the show at Secession, but also the one a Kunsthaus Bregenz [Võ Danh, 2012] and those at Marian Goodman Gallery [Danh Võ: Cathedral Block Prayer Stage Gun Stock, 2019, and Danh Võ: Homosapiens, 2015, London].
DV: One of the conditions of exhibition-making is that you mostly talk to the curators. But you don’t really speak with the installation team. If you come one or two weeks before the opening of a show, you have to get psychologically in tune with the installation team. Especially as an artist who develops the exhibition in situ. You need all their knowledge and capacity to make that exhibition. I immediately asked Secession if there was room in the budget to bring the installation team here, to Güldenhof, just to get familiar with each other. When we later installed the show in Vienna, I barely said anything — it was self-explanatory. That’s how small changes make a difference. That is something I would like to do much more of in the future.
SB: Do you prefer working in this fashion also as a way to better transport the ideas behind the objects? I used to read your exhibitions as situated but also allegorical sites — I think of the ancient holy figures, the French missionary’s letters to his father rewritten by your father. I’m wondering if we’re observing a fundamental shift in your practice, since you are now using more materials from the “real world”? What I mean is: a shift from the symbolic to the material.
DV: I try to look at the holy figures as wood. That’s why the figures I collect have to be deteriorated by worms, time, rain. It really depends on how you look at these objects, in order to turn them back into wood. That’s why I started to hang these sculptures outside.
From the window we can see some huge trees, a bit removed from the house. Võ points to an ancient figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria installed on one of the trees.
SB: Does that mean that you regard your artworks as a kind of transformation in the time frame of the material world?
DV: This project gave me a purpose — it made it much clearer what I want in the future. For example, the question of deciding when to say no to an exhibition or a specific time slot: I previously had no direction as to why I should choose this or that. But this, here, it gives me a kind of anchor. Do I need to do this travel? Do I really need to spend so much time in Australia for an exhibition? This home gives me a reason to be, and that gives me a good argument for the decisions I make. It gives me parameters.
SB: A nagging conscience is very typical of our generation. Think of Fridays for Future, Greta Thunberg’s youth climate movement — we have really profited from industrial and financial progression, although we knew it was based on exploitation. I think there is a general turn happing in our thought processes. A collective change is going on. I also belong to those Berliners who bought a house in the countryside with friends. There are many people who would now like to leave the city entirely. We couldn’t imagine this ten years ago.
DV: Even five years ago. It is not only because of our fear — we’ve just got to think outside of the box. Think of the speed of exhibitions: something went wrong somewhere. To be honest, I, the world, could live without 90 percent of what I’ve done, if not more.
SB: There is a tendency in the art field at the moment to locate art in the sphere of daily reproduction and care — programmatically against the logic of modern art. The question is, I think, when does this turn into a middle- and upper-class lifestyle?
DV: I always think of efficiency. That is why I insist that I’m more practical than creative. How can I make use of my situation in these discussions? When I talk with people outside of the art world — farmers and flower shop owners — I can be a very good trial horse. Because when you look into apple plantations, when you look into young farmers who try to start something, and on the other hand you get a proposal to do one more useless public sculpture and you see the economic differences, then something is going totally wrong. I think the use and benefit of fusing the art world with the material or “real” world needs to be well balanced. Who needs it, and who benefits from it? I don’t have the perfect answer yet — I still need more information and experience. But that is what I’m working on.
Danh Võ, “Learning to Imagine a Tree,” conversation with Sabeth Buchmann in cooperation with Hannah Jacobi, in Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran, ed. Hannah Jacobi (Berlin: mohit.art, 2022); published on www.mohit.art, September 16, 2022.