Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran

This text expands the perspective of the online publication Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran beyond the specific Iranian context. It discusses groundbreaking approaches in historical conceptual art and, from there, draws a link to contemporary positions of global conceptualism. “Testing History” was first published in 2015 in German1 and was lightly edited for republication in German as well as translation to English and Farsi.

I. Object Sequences

In his famous essay “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” published in 1996, US art historian Thomas Crow writes: “Almost every work of serious contemporary art recapitulates, on some explicit or implicit level, the historical sequence of objects to which it belongs.”2 The art historian George Kubler, whose text The Shape of Time (1962)3 Crow indirectly references, understands object sequences as the reproduction of objects in different geo-cultural contexts over time. Specific object forms (such as vases) may be modified, but they refer to a certain basic form that is always handed down. In contrast to Kubler, however, Crow does not distinguish in this context between closed and open sequences: influenced by the postmodernism discourse of the time, Crow apparently assumes that, in principle, all historical object sequences can potentially be continued.

Considering the postmodernism discourse, which continues to have an impact on contemporary art despite being considered outdated, I would like to modify Crow’s thesis: contemporary works of art are taken seriously particularly when they not only recapitulate historical object sequences but also put their underlying rules to the test, literally and metaphorically. Conspicuously, it is, above all, forms of work that have traversed the lessons of postmodernism that avoid the appearance of rule-breaking characteristic of historical avant-gardes. As a result, strategies associated with postmodernism, such as appropriation and fakes, site- and context-specificity, reference and reenactment, on the one hand, reject the categories of “innovative” and “originality” as questionable. On the other hand, they aim to shift and readjust the rules used to measure distinctions between the old and the new, and thus between the historical and the contemporary. This means that procedures based on (post-) avant-garde critique, including criticism of the concept of the work and authorship, have fostered a systemic concept of art that unleashes the relationship between aesthetic object production and the superordinate rules of cultural and historical meaning-making, in a nutshell, between the production of the work and the production of value. The history-critical variant of postmodernism above all has shown that attempts to find such sets of rules focused not so much on aesthetic conventions but rather on the methods and content found in social, media, cultural, and natural sciences.

This tendency, I would argue and shall discuss below in the light of specific examples, goes hand in hand with an increased artistic interest above all in those rules that seek to define the relationship between art and history; post-disciplinary practice and discourse makes comprehending this relationship more complex. If I thus pursue exemplary recapitulations of historical minimal art and conceptual art, it is because these currents, which emerged in the 1960s, opened up “historical (object) sequences”4 to rework the relationship between art and history that remain explosively significant today. In this spirit, the 1967 essay Ultramoderne by land artist Robert Smithson seems to me to be a crucial example for the departure of artists of that era from the “natural history of Modernism”:5 it signified the call to decenter and denaturalize art history above all for its pluralization, with a view to ensuring the inclusion of noncanonical, i.e., also non-Western, object languages and genealogies. Smithson, incidentally, engaged in an intensive reception of Kubler’s The Shape of Time. Smithson’s essay contains a central point of departure toward an awareness of the nonlinear and noncausal, the heterogeneous and discontinuous nature of historical processes that was so crucial for the “new art history.”6 From today’s vantage point, Smithson’s text can be viewed as just one example of a long, widely acknowledged understanding of the entangled histories of contemporary art, as manifested in a broad field spanning gender, Black, and postcolonial studies. However, this insight has also contributed to an overemphasis on the nonsimultaneous in the sense of discontinuous manifestations, which makes it difficult to grasp historical claims to meaning within transcultural art contexts. At this point, I should like to begin my reflections on contemporary practices.

The critique of modernity that emerged in the late 1960s gave rise in the 1980s and 1990s to a trend for artistic practices that sought to test and prove themselves by conscious inscription in historical sequences. Minimal art is no longer characterized by the demands for “presence and place”7 that are typically associated with it, for example, but rather the traditional categories of historiography are challenged by procedures that refer back to the past: remembering, memory, and the archive. One aspect that occasionally recedes into the background in this context is the fact that aesthetically defined object sequences are necessarily visualized and thus “brought to the present moment” by the dimension of presentation and reception. In this sense, Smithson’s emphasis on the heterogeneous, the non-chronological, and the discontinuous has, not without reason, sown doubts on whether reliable distinctions can be drawn between history and the present.

A question consequently arises as to the rules of historical recapitulation beyond canonical historiographies. For it was the latter that Kubler intended with his attempt to place artistic artifacts in a historical framework that is reminiscent of popular object discourses and also reaches far beyond Western concepts of (pre-)modernity — one might think here of speculative realism as well as of the Anthropocene debate: in so far as Kubler sought to replace categories of style and biography with those of form and idea, his writing offered a contact point for artists in conceptual art circles who sought to overcome traditional notions of authorship and the work in the spirit of a systemic idea of art. At first glance, it may seem contradictory that bio- or monographic narratives are accorded such importance for the construction and reconstruction of discontinuous, heterogeneous, and plural (art) histories in the context of conceptual and post-conceptual practices: narratives that ultimately also entered the postmodern discourse on “othering” in the sense of a transcultural critique of identity and homogeneity in modernist art history. In my comments below, I therefore consider “canonical” — which, in this case, means corresponding to dominant art-historical genealogies — connections between conceptual authorship and object categories. I am referring here above all to the conventional way in which the roots of contemporary art are traced in the traditional lineages of minimal and conceptual art. This sheds light on what I see as the striking significance of the (auto)biographical for the question of the rule-sets with which particular artistic practices legitimize the utilization of historical sequences critical of modernism.

II. Forms of Life as Temporal Forms

It is revealing in this context to compare On Kawara’s (1933–2014) Today series or Date Paintings, which he began in the second half of the 1960s, and his I Got Up At series with Félix González-Torres’s Dateline pieces (begun in 1987) and Tom Burr’s Bulletin BoardsBlack Bulletin Board (1998) and Brutalist Bulletin Board (2001). Kawara’s Date Paintings are systemic (i.e., serial and accumulative) procedures of recording time, with each of its shifting languages referring to the particular location where the work was made. The choice of format, the monochrome backgrounds, and the dates applied with white acrylic paint suggest the utmost anonymity and neutrality. In landscape format throughout, the Date Paintings by this conceptual artist, who was born in Japan and lived in New York until his death, alternate between eight fixed sizes, within a range of 20.5 × 25.5 cm and 155 × 226 cm, each 5 cm deep. Initiated on January 4, 1966, the Date Paintings form a temporally open-ended series (i.e., one that is only completed when the artist dies), with over two thousand paintings at last count. In the spirit of the conceptual art of the period in which they were begun, the Date Paintings are accompanied by rules applicable to the work; the last of these being that a painting which cannot be completed on the day whose date it represents must be destroyed. As a consequence, Kawara not only binds object production to a standardized measure of time; in the process he also reinterprets authorship as a mixing of forms of production and forms of life. This is because he understands his concept as a kind of “meditation, a routine conducive to the loss of ego.”8 A connection between repetitive exercise and the regulation of the work process becomes clear here: the intention, which can certainly be explained in terms of both conceptual art and a spiritual attitude, is connected with a desire to discard the historical ballast that binds ideas of the individual subject to traditional ideas of authorship and autobiography.

On Kawara, June 2, 1971, 1971. Liquitex on canvas, private collection. — © In: Ingo F. Walther, ed., Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, vol. 1 (Cologne: Taschen, 1998), 358.
On Kawara, June 2, 1971, 1971. Liquitex on canvas, private collection. In: Ingo F. Walther, ed., Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, vol. 1 (Cologne: Taschen, 1998), 358.

Needless to say, Kawara pushes the rules he has established ad absurdum through his notoriously repetitive application of them and by the modification of their parameters. In this spirit, his I Got Up At series, produced between 1968 and 1979, documents the significance that arbitrariness and chance has for the post-studio artist’s everyday work: this series is based on the decision to write postcards to two people, every day, from wherever he is. The rule repeated in this case consists of a combination of the date, the text “I GOT UP AT,” and the precise time, down to the minute, at which the artist got up on the day in question. While this brings into play the principle of place- and time-specificity linked to the artist’s mobility, this is simultaneously counteracted by the relativity of the time indicated, which does not necessarily correspond with the recipient’s time zone. The standardized documentation of an apparently standardized daily routine thus undermines the idea of a standardized calculation of time, established with the advent of modern industrial society: what may present itself to the artist as the here and now, as the momentary present, is always already the past for the addressee. The recipients of Kawara’s postcards become collectors of his works, and thus the art market’s exclusivity-based rules are literally put to the test. The factors of production value, originality, and uniqueness, which are decisive in traditional approaches to attributing meaning to artistic works, clearly do not apply here.

I should like to note at this point that Kawara’s critique of authorship, and the associated parody of this essential category of (Western) art historiography, is based on a connection between the rule of work and a form of life as a form of time. This connection, which Kawara extends into everyday life and work and transports into the relationship between art and history, tends at the same time to overwrite the subjectivity of authorship through an objectification of the biographical.

Chiming with this, in the montages of historical and autobiographical data by Félix González-Torres, who was born in Cuba in 1957 and died in 1996 from AIDS-related complications, and his US colleague Tom Burr (*1963), examples can also be identified of the object sequences arising from classical conceptual art, whose historical-critical recapitulation Crow asserts in order to render visible previously unwritten histories of conceptual art.9 In the case of González-Torres’s Dateline pieces from the late 1980s and Burr’s Bulletin Boards from the late 1990s, we are not faced with a concept of history conceived in chronological terms. Instead, both artists endeavor to examine the rules of historiography with and through those (media) techniques that reach out to the structures and mechanisms of cultural memory.

What is striking at first is the association of the autobiographical with the aesthetics of the archive and the database: both artists work with montages that consist of an equally random and rule-governed coinciding of suprapersonal events and individual biography. Such overwriting of communication-based display formats with information relevant to identity politics is a hallmark of post-conceptualism. Here, this overwriting is combined with queer and AIDS-related politics and is characterized by the way in which vertical time is rendered horizontal: the choice of certain historical dates and the history they represent always necessarily shrouds other possible courses of history. This is to a large extent demonstrated by the blank spaces between the dates and the image reproductions in these montages. Although minimal art’s “presence and place” and the semiotic character of conceptual art are indeed linked to the temporal structure of representation, at the same time, they elude the idea that history can be represented objectively. In this spirit, González-Torres’s Dateline pieces assemble randomly arranged data that reference various cultural, social, political, and personal events and experiences that participate in the inevitable identity-constituting effects of historiography. Printed in white type on black photocopy paper, their phenomenological quality is activated by the frame’s reflective glass, which produces a reciprocal form of perception. In this respect, it seems relevant at this point to note that Kawara’s dissolution of the “I” becomes the “(informal) you” of the viewer as subject in González-Torres’s work. This subject gradually becomes aware of the historical sequences evoked in the Dateline pieces as a simultaneously visually and textually standardized rule-set: as the quintessence of the Dateline pieces can be summed up, history is founded on the shaky ground of imaginations, projections, and memories that are inscribed in and/or are triggered by historical data.

Félix González-Torres, Untitled, 1988. Framed photocopy, artist’s proof. — © In: Julie Ault, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Göttingen: Steidldangin, 2006), 146.
Félix González-Torres, Untitled, 1988. Framed photocopy, artist’s proof. In: Julie Ault, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Göttingen: Steidldangin, 2006), 146.

González-Torres’s choice to vary the Dateline pieces and the ways in which he does so allow us to read it as the acid test of our own constitution as subjects, which are both historically mediated and mediating. It shows that a crucial aspect of Kubler’s The Shape of Time — namely, critique of the use of biological metaphors — plays a subordinate role to the influence that discourses of subject and identity had on conceptual practices of the 1980s and 1990s. This also applies to Burr’s Bulletin Boards which he created in the late 1990s: the rules according to which historical sequences of the archive and the portrait are mixed together in these montages draw on the artist’s (auto)biographical parameters. As a result, the object sequences derived from minimalism and conceptualism experience an “embodiment” that reflects (contemporary) history contingently. Apart from the date, 1963, the year Burr was born, what connects The Elevens Are Up by minimalist artist Tony Smith, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio Rising? And what connects one of Robert Morris’s early solo exhibitions with the death of the poet, painter, choreographer, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, or the completion in the same year of Paul Rudolph’s famous Art and Architecture building at Yale University with Jim Morrison’s onstage arrest in New Haven, Burr’s birthplace, in the middle of a Doors concert for allegedly violating the obscenity ban?

Tom Burr, Bad Brad Board #1, 2007. Two wooden boards, steel, thumbtacks, photographs, vinyl disc, 122 x 161 x 4 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. — © In: Tom Burr, exh. cat. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau, Munich (Cologne: DuMont, 2009), 54.
Tom Burr, Bad Brad Board #1, 2007. Two wooden boards, steel, thumbtacks, photographs, vinyl disc, 122 × 161 × 4 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. In: Tom Burr, exh. cat. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau, Munich (Cologne: DuMont, 2009), 54.

What Burr brings into play here, picking up on Kawara and González-Torres, are rules of historiography that are at one and the same time subjective and contingent, hence provisional, not to say improvised. These rules form the basis of Burr’s combinations of documents from art, cultural, and architectural history, with a focus on pop and queer culture: historically coded sequences of objects thus experience diverse contextualizations, extended through a queer perspective, which at the same time put prevailing art historiographies (i.e., those based on the principles and procedures of stylistic history, genealogy, iconology, etc.) to the test. Such contextualizations are mostly manifested in the montage of archival and/or (auto)biographical documents that appear programmatically as subjective rule-sets. Consequently, they are able to counteract seemingly “objective,” mostly linear, and closed historical narratives.

However, it would certainly be too simple to say that the artist is “rewriting” and thus “narrating” a different, alternative art history. After all, the rules Burr has chosen are designed precisely to test the conditions and possibilities of change within the framework of the new way of thinking about historiography in which his work is created. It can be linked, inter alia, to the “new museology” that has been practiced since the 1980s, with its interest in marginalized artists’ positions and in living archives; the openness to biological metaphors that Kubler lambasted can be identified here too. It could be argued that Burr acts in an outright disciplinary manner within a contemporary, that is to say, post-disciplinary, art and exhibition process. It is certainly no coincidence that his Bulletin Boards are associated with art historian Arby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, a pictorial atlas and conceptual form of presentation renowned for its inclination toward factual designs and non-hierarchical information media. At the same time, an archival principle underlines the function of a formalized but at the same time “alive” rule-set, which is clearly necessary in order to recapitulate historical and (auto)biographical data on the basis of a reliable, i.e., publicly communicable, language. Burr decided to grasp the bio- or monographic as an intertextual procedure within a framework of communication media engaged in the aesthetics of reproduction and at the same time to refer to viewers’ shifting subject and identity positions. This approach, which is reminiscent of Kawara, can be understood as an attempt to operate the ineluctable recapitulation of historical object sequences always in relation to as well as directed against the rules of those artistic procedures and movements that attempted to elevate meaning primarily to a function of physically experienced reception.

It is precisely in this respect that I see a difference from the widespread tendency to short-circuit historical meaning with narrative-constructing references instead of asking about the interactions of their de- and reconstruction — for example, in the context of biopolitical agendas. Just as an artist like Kawara sought to undermine the relationship between art and history naturalized by European modernist historiography, the works of González-Torres and Burr denaturalize that seemingly purified aesthetic removed of social identities which formats like Kawara’s exemplify, and they do this in full awareness of the role that the construction of gender has played in processes of subjectivation within the framework of modern (art) history.

III. Practicing on the Object

Thus far, I have focused on artistic recapitulations of historical sequences through their displacement into real, experienced temporal forms, where the contingencies of the (auto)biographical shape the rules according to which the aesthetic (semiotic) material is organized. As a result, it is not so much the work that comes to the fore, but the method of its creation — a dimension that subverts the linear distinction between the historical and the contemporary. The intention involves putting traditional distinctions to the test, for example, the differentiation between readymades and found objects, between the “specific object” of minimalism and the semiotic form of conceptual art, the autonomous object and the functional display. Looking at the works of Danh Võ that have emerged from the historical sequences of minimal and conceptual art, the increasingly biopolitical entwining of the time of objects and the time of life is striking.

Like Kawara, González-Torres, and Burr, Võ numbers among the artists described as post-studio, artists who do not produce their works, projects, and exhibitions exclusively in the studio but also in other locations and in situ — in the gallery, the collection, or the museum. In Võ’s case, this goes hand in hand with a predilection for scenographic arrangements of objects and signs that allows him to run through various iterations of the rules of exhibiting in ever new settings. The “presence and place” thus appears as the result of temporary and local experimental setups that are predetermined by the conditions in each exhibition space. Like Kawara, González-Torres, and Burr, Võ’s work is also associated with a reinterpretation of traditional concepts of authorship. In this context, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, initiated in 2003, is emblematic; the experiment entails legally assuming the names of close friends through marriage. On the one hand, this project reveals how authorship can be imbued with resolutely affective qualities (elective affinity, love, loyalty, etc.); however, in contrast to Kawara’s strategy, it does not serve to negate ideas of identity linked to an authorial ego, but to multiply and thus disavow these. For example, his passport bears a different name to the one on his bank card and driver’s license. Võ explains this by saying that “Võ Danh,” a name he encountered in cemeteries where victims of the Vietnam War are buried, literally means “without a name.” This signifies that the artist, as part of his creative strategy, corrupts the (auto)biographical dimension, which became a not insignificant factor of his public persona due to his origins and the recollections these awaken of the countless Vietnamese who died as a result of napalm. A biopolitical implication could also be identified here, as in González-Torres and Burr’s thematizations of AIDS and homophobia.

Danh Vo, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2003. 4 inkjet prints on A4 paper, 29,7 x 21 cm. In the exhibition Take My Breath Away at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9-May 9, 2018. — © Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.
Danh Vo, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2003. 4 inkjet prints on A4 paper, 29,7 x 21 cm. In the exhibition Take My Breath Away at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9-May 9, 2018. — © Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.
Danh Vo, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2003. 4 inkjet prints on A4 paper, 29,7 x 21 cm. In the exhibition Take My Breath Away at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9-May 9, 2018. — © Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.
Danh Vo, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2003. 4 inkjet prints on A4 paper, 29,7 x 21 cm. In the exhibition Take My Breath Away at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9-May 9, 2018. — © Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.
Documentation of marriage and divorce proceedings between the artist and people of significance in his life, since 2003. The individuals’ surnames and the documents were the only items acquired in the process; the artist’s official full name, as a result, is: Trung-Ky Danh Võ Rosasco Rasmussen.
Danh Võ, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen, 2003. 4 inkjet prints on A4 paper, 29,7 × 21 cm. In the exhibition Take My Breath Away at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 9-May 9, 2018. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018.

Seen in this light, Vo Rosasco Rasmussen is not simply about a queer critique of a work’s concepts and authorship being extended to structurally patriarchal and heteronormative institutions such as those of authorship and marriage; their affirmative corruption also applies to the foundations of dominant historiography. In this spirit, Võ often delegates the production of works to members of his family, especially to his father, Phùng Võ, whose “layman’s imprimatur” has, so to speak, become the artistic signature of Võ’s decentered practice. However, Võ does not aim in this context for a harmonious coexistence of professional market-oriented art and outsider art. Instead, he highlights the visible ruptures in prevailing myths of authorship that are still based on attributions of individuality and subjectivity. The artist’s approach therefore also continues and develops Kawara’s strategy of denaturalizing authorship by short-circuiting a literally genealogical process through the recapitulation of historical object sequences.

Examples of this approach include Oma Totem (Granny Totem) (2009) and Tombstone for Phùng Võ (2012), dedicated to Võ’s still-living father. The former is an ensemble comprised of a washing machine, refrigerator, television, crucifix, and casino ticket — a montage of Western consumer products the artist’s grandmother received from the Immigrant Relief Program after fleeing Vietnam, as well as a devotional object donated by the Catholic Church upon her arrival in Germany and a reference to a leisure activity popular among older people. In Oma Totem, symbols of Western affluence become a Dada-like representation of a life rendered precarious by exodus and immigration, linking Võ’s grandmother’s life with an everyday culture through a montage that references the afterlife of the aesthetics of minimalism and conceptualism.

Danh Vo, Oma Totem, 2009. Phillips television set, Gorenje washing machine, Bomann refrigerator, wooden crucifix and personal casino entrance card, 220 x 60 x 60 cm. — © Photo: Nick Ash.
Refrigerator, washing machine, and TV: part of a package given to the artist’s maternal grandmother, Nguyen Thi Ty, by the Immigrant Relief Program upon arrival in Germany in the 1970s. Crucifix: gift from the Catholic Church. Personalized casino card entry pass: acquired independently. Nguyen immigrated to Germany and spent the rest of her life in Hamburg (instead of Denmark like the artist) as she was on a separate vessel intercepted at sea, rather than the boat captained by Phùng Võ. The family made the decision to separate with the intention that it would give the “family line” as a whole a greater chance of survival.
Danh Võ, Oma Totem, 2009. Phillips television set, Gorenje washing machine, Bomann refrigerator, wooden crucifix and personal casino entrance card, 220 × 60 × 60 cm. Photo: Nick Ash.

Ultimately, the inscription chosen for Tombstone for Phùng Võ — “Here lies someone whose name was written in water” — suggests a biopolitically charged analogy between the form of the object and the form of life. In both works, the fate, shared by Võ and his family, of “boat people,” a term that originally referred to those fleeing Vietnam by watercraft, appears which then as now shapes the simultaneously stigmatized and spectacularized image of migrants: these works are memorials that are private and public in equal measure and that contradict the categorical distinction between autonomous sculpture and commemorative representation.10 The work’s title contains a dedication to Võ’s father, yet here it is not the “others” who must serve as exoticized projection surfaces (keyword: outsider art). In a manner comparable to Kawara, González-Torres, and Burr, the linking of the (auto)biographical with art-historical narratives counteracts the abstraction of aesthetic objects from contingent and simultaneously determinate lifetimes. This includes the condition stipulated by the artist that anyone who purchases the gravestone must return it to the family after his father’s death. The work will thus lose its autonomous status in the (un)foreseeable future, and at that point will fulfill the commemorative function of a gravestone.

Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phùng Vo, 2010. Black absolute granite and gold, engraving from writing by Phùng Vo, 64 x 90 x 8 cm. — © Photo: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phùng Vo, 2010. Black absolute granite and gold, engraving from writing by Phùng Vo, 64 x 90 x 8 cm. Collection of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011. — © Photo: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
As contracted during its acquisition, this work in the Walker collection will travel to the Vestre Kirkegård cemetery in Copenhagen upon the death of the artist’s father, where it will mark his grave. Accompanied by a legal will provided by Phùng Võ confirming details of transaction that will occur upon his death. The Walker will receive from his personal effects a Rolex watch, a Dupont lighter, an American military class ring, and a golden crucifix necklace, in exchange for sending the work Tombstone for Phùng Võ to the surviving members of the Võ family in Copenhagen.
Danh Võ, Tombstone for Phùng Võ, 2010. Black absolute granite and gold, engraving from writing by Phùng Võ, 64 × 90 × 8 cm. Collection of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011. Photo: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Such practices concerning personal and suprapersonal recapitulations of art-historical formats for works (document and monument, montage and assemblage, “sculpture in the expanded field”11 and certificates, etc.) that are simultaneously artistic and political, once again raise questions about the significance that the categories of authorship and (auto)biography, often all too seamlessly reproduced, hold when describing a relationship between art and history with a biopolitical twist.

This tallies with the way in which Võ has connected the model of the “family business,” which is rather unusual in the art world, to institutional, media, and mercantile mechanisms: he brings to a head the biopolitical implications already inherent in works by González-Torres and Burr, testing those rules whereby the production of artistic work is legitimized as historical value production. There is, for example, an edition of handwritten letters, produced by Phùng Võ, which are copies of a nineteenth-century farewell letter that French missionary Jean-Théophane Vénard wrote to his father shortly before his execution. Against this backdrop, we must consider how we wish to reconcile this work with the usual linkage between authorship and artist biography and how we wish to historicize it. As we learn from information enclosed with the edition, the number of letters depends on the number of orders placed before the death of Võ’s father.12 In contrast with historical conceptual art, this is an indubitably radicalized mapping of forms of artwork and forms of value onto (biopolitical) categories of life expectancy. Whether any prices can be achieved for such objects on the art market and/or at auction after his father’s death, and how high such prices might be, is in my view once again a question about the relationship between art and history, which is obviously subject to market pressure.

IV. Recapitulation

Võ’s recapitulation of historical object sequences is presented as a continued retesting of the relationship between art and history, incorporating materials unfamiliar to Western audiences. I shall discuss what this can mean with reference to the 2013 exhibition Mother Tongue at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. The exhibits came from Robert S. McNamara’s estate, which was sold at auction, and relate to his 1961–68 term of office as US secretary of defense and thus to his shared responsibility for the Vietnam War: according to Võ, McNamara received the objects as gifts or collected and used them himself.13

The exhibition was designed as the amalgam of a scenographic setting and an archive of cultural history: the objects exhibited – pens reportedly used for signing political treaties, an object made of horn from Vietnam, an autographic letter by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a menu from the White House – were presented in chair fragments and a series of wall-mounted display cases. The exhibition thus reflected the style of object display characteristic of minimal and conceptual art. One might be reminded of Robert Morris’s felt pieces from 1967 when looking at Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs, which references the corrupt sacrileges of an equally corrupt art historiography. For when it comes to art from the late 1960s and early 1970s, this historiography mostly, with a few exceptions,14 entails nothing more than mentioning the artists involved in protests against the US invasion of Vietnam. The associated question of hegemony, not simply in geopolitical or biopolitical terms but also in (media) cultural terms, is only addressed when it is also the explicit subject of artworks, as in the case of Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (ca. 1967–72). It is precisely such political implications concerning the historical sequences of minimal and conceptual art objects that often fall by the wayside in the face of references that are first and foremost formal. Running counter to this tendency toward a reductionist perception of aesthetic objects as intact bearers and mediators of historical meanings, the displays chosen by Võ submit to a much more complex museological gaze that is equally art-historical, social, and ethnographic. Thus, Võ’s method of recapitulating historical (object) sequences clearly aims at their incoherent, i.e., not only art-historical but also fictional and political-ideological, genealogies.

Danh Vo, Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs*, 2013. Leather, 259,08 x 73,66 x 43,18 cm. — © Photo: Nick Ash.
One of eight works produced from lots acquired by the artist from the October 23, 2012 Sotheby’s auction: The White House Years of Robert S. McNamara. McNamara (1916–2009), the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations left his post (as protests against the Vietnam war escalated) to become the President of the World Bank until he retired in 1981. Lot 20 consisted of two Chippendale-style black leather upholstered mahogany open armchairs, silvered nail head trim, one with the label of the W.H. Gunlocke Chair Co., Wayland, New York, 101,6 cm high, each with a brass plaque affixed to the back. They were a gift to McNamara from Jacqueline Kennedy and were accompanied by a letter.
Danh Võ, Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs*, 2013. Leather, 259,08 × 73,66 × 43,18 cm. Photo: Nick Ash.

Against this background, how should the presentation of an object marked by the interlocking eras of colonialism and the Vietnam War be understood? Possibly as a quasi-ethnographic prop from a living archive in which the interrelationships between object and life forms, so crucial for art critical of modernity, prescribe the rules controlled by the (art) market, whereby the still unwritten histories of a post-conceptual and/or post-disciplinary practice are spelled out by artists like Danh Võ until further notice.

Danh Vo, Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs*, 2013. Mahogany, metal, 102,9 x 66 x 65,4 cm. — © Photo: Nick Ash.
Danh Võ, Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs*, 2013. Mahogany, metal, 102,9 × 66 × 65,4 cm. Photo: Nick Ash.

Consequently, Võ’s “objects,” draped in situational scenarios, cannot be divided into singular historical sequences, in other words, sequences that can be delimited from one another. Instead, in the spirit of the tableaux already mentioned in relation to the works by González-Torres and Burr, they insist upon a simultaneous and thus diverse and layered seeing, which for its part can only be tested on the basis of specific constellations. While those historical sequences considered closed by Kubler (such as the missionary’s letter) seem to open up in this way, seemingly open sequences (such as minimal art) appear trapped in the undead because they only recapitulate (historical) loops without the links that already appear in work by González-Torres and Burr. Under the condition of biopolitical (self-)utilization that emerges in Võ’s oeuvre, these undead loops would lend Kubler’s critique of art historiography’s affinity for biological metaphors a thoroughly contemporary meaning.

Translated from German by Helen Ferguson.

1 In: Eva Kernbauer, ed., Kunstgeschichtlichkeit: Historizität und Anachronie in der Gegenwartskunst, (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015), 169-184.

2 Thomas Crow, “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art,” in Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 212.

3 George Kubler, The Shape of Time (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1962).

4 I use this expression in reference to Crow’s term, the “historical sequence of objects.”

5 Robert Smithson, “Ultramoderne,” in The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 62–5, here 62. Originally published in Arts Magazine 42 (September/October 1967).

6 This term encompasses the expansion of art history’s canon to include disciplines of cultural, social, and media history.

7 See, for example, Gregor Stemmrich, “Kunst in einem pragmatischen Kontinuum,” in Kopfbahnhof /Terminal: Maria Eichhorn, Douglas Gordon, Lawrence Weiner, exh. cat., Leipziger Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (Leipzig: Förderkreis der Leipziger Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, 1995), 10–27.

8 On Kawara quoted in Nico Israel, “On Kawara: David Zwirner,” Artforum 43, no. 5 (January 2005),

9 Crow refers here mainly to Bas Jan Ader, Christopher D’Arcangelo, and Christopher Williams. Crow, “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art.”

10 Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1978), reprinted in Modern Sculpture Reader, ed. Jon Wood, David Hulks, and Alex Potts (Leeds: Henry Moore Foundation, 2007), 333–42, here 355.

11 Echoing Rosalind Krauss’s famous essay. See Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.”

12 See exhibition information for Võ Danh, Kunsthaus Bregenz, April 21–June 24, 2012,

13 See exhibition information for Mother Tongue, Marian Goodman Gallery, March 20–April 27, 2013,

14 Exceptions include Jutta Held, “Minimal Art – eine amerikanische Ideologie” (1972), reprinted in Minimal Art. Eine kritische Retrospektive, ed. Gregor Stemmrich (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1995), 444–70, and Anna C. Chave, “Minimalismus und die Rhetorik der Macht” (1990), reprinted in Stemmrich, Minimal Art, 647–77.

Sabeth Buchmann, “Testing History,” in Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran, ed. Hannah Jacobi (Berlin:, 2022); published on, April 29, 2022.