(Photography by Anna R. Ressman/Oriental Institute Museum)

Artistic freedom

As émigré artist Danh Vo sends Liberty around the globe, Chicago embraces its share.

“I told him we wanted the eye,” says Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez, referring to a full-sized model fragment of the Statue of Liberty’s face by artist Danh Vo. More than ten feet wide and eight feet tall, the eye is part of Vo’s ongoing project, We the People.

Using copper the thickness of two pennies, Vo is recreating the Statue of Liberty, piece by piece on a 1:1 scale, and distributing the pieces around the world. Thanks to Ghez’s efforts, five of them are exhibited on campus this fall: the eye and a fragment of Lady Liberty’s gown in the Oriental Institute Museum and other fragments on  the grounds of Chicago Booth and the Law School.

Much of Vo’s art involves repurposing objects with historical resonance that is  personal or political—or both. His 2009 Museum of Modern Art installation 26.05.2009, 8:43, for instance, is a disassembled chandelier whose pieces, neatly arranged, fill most of a gallery. The chandelier came from the hotel ballroom where the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973, ending direct US military involvement in Vietnam, where Vo was born. In 1979, when he was four, his family fled to Denmark.

Vo’s past works, notes the Renaissance Society’s Hamza Walker, AB’88, “are very direct in relation to the sociopolitical circumstances” of the artist’s background. So taking on an object as symbolically loaded as the Statue of Liberty might seem to “signal an equal investment.” Not so, insists Vo, who sees We the People as evoking something universal that everybody has a relationship to, “something everybody thought they owned, such as a symbol of freedom.” The trick, he says, is to “twist it a bit” into the unfamiliar.

Struck by Vo’s brand of visceral commentary, Ghez partnered with curator James Rondeau from the Art Institute of Chicago, which is displaying five other sections from We the People, to bring Vo’s work to Chicago. Ghez and Rondeau, the Art Institute’s chair of contemporary art, sit on the purchasing committee for the Chicago Booth art collection. During a 2009 trip to Germany to secure a Vo piece for Booth, Ghez and Rondeau talked about the possibility of hosting the artist for a lengthier project.

Ghez also brought a second Vo exhibition, Uterus, to campus this fall. On view at the Renaissance Society through December 16 and dedicated to Ghez, Uterus remained largely unknown to her until it was installed. It still holds mysteries, even to the artist himself, who sees the exhibit as a “learning process.”

The exhibit’s eclectic collection of objects, which Walker likens to “a series of puzzle pieces ... from different puzzles,” begins in the hallway outside the gallery with a display of letters from Henry Kissinger to Leonard Lyons of the New York Post from the 1970s when Kissinger was secretary of state. Inside the gallery, the viewer encounters disparate items, including a stack of copper ingots, melted down after a failed attempt at Liberty’s flame; 40 fresh flowers, each marking a year of Ghez’s tenure at the Renaissance Society; and a photograph of Vo’s young cousin looking back over his shoulder blades, showing off his “wings.”

In this image, Vo’s vision of the universal fluidity of ideas takes shape.  “Not only the fantasy of a little kid,” the photo plays on the power of transformation, the human need to “keep on believing that things have the possibility to be something else.”