01. This is where Danh Vo’s spiral leads. Two plants, seated in pots, the only living organisms along the helix. Which is to say that the end of the path feels more like a beginning.
02. Looking up from the rotunda floor, K notes that "Take My Breath Away,” Vo’s career retrospective at the Guggenheim, does nothing with the atrium. Unlike James Turrell's "Aten Reign" (2013), or Maurizio Cattelan's "All" (2011), Vo foregoes the museum's architectural promise for a simpler program, designating sites of interest in the objects on display. For the most part, the sculptures, photographs, and works on paper are confined to their compartments.
03. In the first room, a marbled ruin from antiquity, severed at the ankles, stands in contrapposto amid two politically-significant sprawls of Cold War-era upholstery: One set drapes from the height of an exhibition divider, stained with wicked impressions of Catholic altars; the other latches, a mass of weathered leather pinned to the adjacent wall.
04. About halfway up the ramp, photographs taken during the Vietnam War of young Vietnamese men living their lives—holding hands, perusing art galleries—along with typed and handwritten letters entice from behind their glass vitrines. These artifacts, the wall text offers, can be read as conceptual surrogates for Vo’s own history. Telling, since this reading is trending in popular analysis.
05. Philip Kennicott, in his review for The Washington Post, likens Vo's show to a "memoir in objects," a description that indulges what the artist describes as presenting "the tiny diasporas of a person’s life." But if, as Vo contends, the “self is plural,” then this framework limits the objects' imaginaries to finite domains, expanding no farther than what his personal horizons can accommodate.
06. Grant the appropriated objects lives of their own and the possibilities multiply. Chandeliers acquired from the Hotel Majestic in Paris. A motor engine from a brand-name car that Vo’s father aspired to own. Family heirlooms. Vo activates these things from within, beyond, and between their material affects—but, as co-curator to his own show, he reminds us that he exists independently of them, too. Can we assume the reverse also holds true?
07. I'll concede that a big part of what makes this show interesting to me is its open fixation on Vo’s biography. His formative years, we're told, were a relentless series of misfortunes. And yet here he is at the Guggenheim, a once-refugee now Danish-naturalized international art star feeding us authenticated artifacts of material opulence alongside disparate accounts of lives under siege—all, invariably, in the splendor of their specificity. Realities rise and collapse, colliding and refracting, with little else than the artist's phantom breath binding everything together. Take his breath away and the objects on view yield glimpses into lives of their own.