Walking past the White Cube Gallery on Bermondsey street, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume the giant space has shuttered for good. The floor to ceiling glass windows are boarded from the inside, covered with swatches of cardboard, stuck to the panels with brown tape. And in an economy like this its hard to imagine the amount of art you’d need to sell to not be bleeding money on rent and storage overheads.
But it’s not closed – and every Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm, the online booking slots just about vanish as 35 people an hour make appointments to see the Danh Vo show on view. Born in Vietnam, raised in Denmark, and practicing between Germany and Mexico, to call Vo and Asian or European artist does no one any favors. His work draws from a range of personal and historical perspectives that play out in startlingly comfortable and unsettling ways, illustrating that the distance between these two might be shorter than we think. The boarded up windows serve to block out the natural light, and the overhead fluorescents have been replaced by wood burning furnaces, darkening the hallways and the sparsely decorated galleries. In Chicxulub, light defines the space, carving out pockets of warmth with fires fed by a disappearing installation at the back southern gallery.
A large, 13-star American flag made up of dark and light wooden logs has been slowly depleting since its opening in early September. Taken from the upper right hand corner, it began to unravel in service of continuing to light the cultural artifacts, fractured religious icons, stained glass, ceramic tiles, plant life and discarded soda bottles that make up the sculptures in the exhibition. Stars have now made their way onto the floor, their supports no longer there to hold them in place.
It’s hard not to focus on this action, this erosion, and the clunky sculptural stars that will fall to the floor as the exhibition continues. The south galleries are filled with flowerbeds, vibrant, green and teeming with life as spiders, butterflies and other small insects continue to construct their homes within them. A dying apple tree stands with the help of scaffolding in another room. Amidst found objects from churches, marble sculptures, and so much organic materials, its hard to not feel the harshness of the steely, cold, disparate shapes, lying in a sad pile of their own rubble.
The stars are jarring in the same way the gallery itself is. The warmth, the light, the natural elements and presence are comforting, cozy with their own quiet movement – “nature is healing” as they say. But the cold white walls, the cement floor, the stillness when left alone for too long in the space reminds you you’ve been tricked. You’re surrounded by the artifacts of greatness past, fallen empires, lives lost – and all this nature, this greenery, this healing plant life is only alive at the hands of the white walls. It is all at once wholesome, warm, and completely apocalyptic.
That crux, that pocket carved out by the intersection of oddities is where the power in this exhibition really lies. How much can we get used to? Adapt to? Tolerate? Can we see the steel in the trees only once we’ve burned down the forest? How far apart are states of comfort and the unsettled? And how close are we to crossing from one to the other? The flag of the 13 colonies who fought for independence in the Revolutionary War will continue to disappear into the furnaces, until the show closes on November 3rd – the day before the US presidential election. When it’s gone and the fires have died out, stars strewn across the floor, I wonder what we’ll have to show for any of it, other than an unsettling, familiar feeling of stillness.
Bookings are free and available online through the White Cube website.