At the Pinault, Paris: 'Avant l'orage'
I am sat in my too-small kitchen watching clouds gather. Forming above La Défense, a dark knot slowly unfolds across the Parisian skyline. Raindrops begin to stream down my window and I reach to turn the heating on. Over the course of an hour the sky has shifted from bright blue to an asphalt grey. In another hour the clouds will have dispersed and the sky’s colour will be briefly memorialised in the rain-darkened roofs and pavements. In the midst of this, I experience a strange temporality: caught between land and sky, witnessing the rain lash down whilst remaining dry and warm, I am both within the storm and removed from it. In the thick darkness everything slows. It seems apt, then, to be spending these rain-drenched moments thinking about Dahn Vo’s most recent installation, TROPEAOLUM (2023), for Avant l’orage (‘Before the storm’) exhibition at the Pinault Collection.
Housed at the centre of the Bourse de Commerce, once used for the trade and storage of wheat, the installation is composed of three large wooden pavilions. These structures are made of stacked boxes of processed timber which are straddled by fallen trunks and branches. Photos of various plant species are hung on most of the beams – some presenting flowers, others not. In each structure, just out of reach, the eponymous bright orange flowers of the Tropaeolum grow under bright, artificial light. Amongst the overlapping wooden beams, and sometimes balanced on fallen trunks, Vo has placed a collection of sculptures composed of a mixture of wood, marble, and glass.
Stepping into the concrete-lined rotunda, you are struck by the sheer scale of Vo’s installation. It is difficult not to succumb to a strong desire to climb when faced with this playground-like configuration of wooden beams. Moving across the concrete floor, it’s hard to know where to begin. Should you start at the centre and take it all in? Or is it better to explore the finer details and approach each structure individually? Climbing ambitions thwarted by a deep-seated fear of authority (and respect for the art, of course), I opt for the latter, avoiding the most immediate structure – too many people – and walk anti-clockwise.
Pressed between two glass plates, encased in an oak and brass vitrine, the Madonna stands staring down at her partially severed child. Cloaked in bright orange-red flowers that spiral out of a test tube, she appears solemn and uneasy. At her feet, the head of an axe.
The simple elegance of the glass case that frames the 15th Century sculpture at the centre of Untitled (2020) acts as a microcosm for the timber structures that tower above. It also mirrors Edith Dekyndt’s installation (L’origine des choses, 2022) that encircles the exhibition space. Using glass display cases, Dekyndt presents visitors with a range of objects: a tanned lambskin; a pile of roses, each individually wrapped in cellophane; a collection of oak, maple, and chestnut leaves fixed to glass; and more. The positioning of these objects, combined with their alluring tactile natures, emphasises their isolation. In doing so, Dekyndt ensures that gallery visitors are made aware they can look but never touch: viewer discretion advised, material separation mandated. Spinning around Dekyndt’s installation, I am reminded of one too many school trips to the Natural History Museum – perhaps for others these cases might be reminiscent of those in the Louvre or the British Museum. Alive to these kinds of resonances, Dekyndt transforms each display into a physical embodiment of the colonial gaze with her deft capture and entrapment of objects of commerce and trade. This prompts uncomfortable questions about the complicity of galleries – and their visitors – in the perpetuation of colonial violence.
Though Vo is concerned with similar themes, such invocations are not so obvious in TROPEAOLUM: it seems that the cabinet in Untitled (2020) reflects the spatial constraints, and restraints, of the gallery. The glass shelving presses the statue into place, whilst the case creates a tactile distance between the viewer and the statue. Vo’s work often treads a fine line between transforming his galleries into cathedrals, spaces of reverence, or merely using them as elaborate storage facilities, where objects may fade into the background. It seems that Untitled (2020) speaks to this tension: it moves neatly between being a container of artefacts and a stage for adoration. The inclusion of this piece therefore resolves into two specific curatorial questions that are reflected in the broader installation: How does the gallery space augment the reception of selected objects? And, who decides what is stored and what should be adored?
Inside the vitrine, the obvious focal point is the hacked-at figure of the Madonna. Her sad, if slightly perplexed, gaze turns quietly down to observe the child resting in her arms. The axe head that rests at her feet seems threatening. It acts as a stark reminder of the processes of transformation that have had to occur to produce this figure: a tree felled, processed, carved, and presented to the right audience. Like the branches strewn around the rest of the installation, Vo uses the axe head to gesture towards the paradox of creation: to create is also to destroy. In one way, creation may result in simplification - as in the case of the timber beams - and, in another, it may produce saint-like figures.
Attaching a glass test tube to the planed surface of the statue’s back is a more oblique compositional manoeuvre that invokes an obvious tension between modernity and tradition, religion and science. By allowing the green tendrils of the Tropaeolum to breach the sculpture’s divided surface, however, Vo encourages a more nuanced reflection on these slightly tired binaries. Natural agency is both highlighted and dampened: a plant grows from a test tube, leaving the audience to question who is in control. This act of enclosure and hybridization continues throughout the installation. Marble torsos can be found pinned to tree trunks, wooden figures are laid to rest in old produce boxes, and branches knot between processed wood to stray above concrete walls.
Broken trunks rest on a sturdy frame.
Continuing anti-clockwise, I approach the second pavilion. Here, a large splintered tree trunk rests on two timber blocks whilst shattered branches balance on the frame above. The description offered for this installation prompts visitors to imagine these trunks and branches – so-called “victims of the weather” – as camouflage for the wooden frames. This feels unconvincing. Not only do the branches only offer partial cover for the pavilions, but this interpretation would also obscure a more interesting conversation that exists in Vo’s composition: the tension between what is found and what is made. In a body of work that consists mainly of the (re)composition of acquired objects, Vo is no stranger to questions about artistic authorship. In fact, he embraces them. In an interview for The New Yorker, Vo speaks to his interest in the artist as a curator or collector: “My work is really through installation […] It’s always about how things speak together.”. By deploying weather-beaten trunks amongst processed timber, noting also the repeat presence of wooden sculptures, Vo creates a textural landscape that – in this historic house of commerce – challenges the visitor to think about the processes of trade and labour that have allowed this exhibition (and gallery) to come into being. Indeed, it is notable that some of branches are marked by clean cuts and even feature red inscriptions. Are we to believe each of these trunks are mere victims of the weather, innocently found? Perhaps not.
By weaving bleached wooden frames with moss-covered branches, Vo also makes a gesture towards the conformity that large-scale manufacturing attempts to enact and the often-unruly reality of using natural materials. What happens if your timber stock is left damaged in the wake of a storm (or, indeed, by an axe)? Beyond the textural difference, Vo’s choice of material also speaks to a broader concern with temporality. In one interview, he expresses a fascination with stone as a material for sculpture due to its evocation of geological time. The permanence of some materials over others was obvious in this installation comprised of centuries old sculptures and recently felled trees. As a visitor, you are forced to confront not only the flashing damage of a storm but also processes of century-long decay. Once the exhibition has ended, visitors might wonder, what will remain of this installation?
Mounted on white paper, surrounded by a light wooden frame, tight white clusters sit to the side. Out of focus, and occupying most of the frame, a brief glimpse of a market in full swing.
Continuing around to the third pavilion, I am drawn to a photo hovering at head height. It doesn’t seem to show much, but the cursive writing below instructs me that I’m looking at the white, cotton-tight flowers of the Amaranthus plant. Captured at his local florist, these images speak to Vo’s interest in scale: they not only force visitors to refocus on the small and particular, but also represent the outcome of a global commodity network at a local scale. As Vo states in his interview for the exhibition, “I want to understand better this very simple fact of a family that tries to survive by selling very privileged people, like me, flowers”.
I’m not sure what it is about the image of Amaranthus that is more alluring than the tens of others that are dotted around the installation. Perhaps it’s the ambiguity. Initially, I was convinced that I was seeing the long limbs of a willow drooping over a pond but the more that I examined the photo the more it became infected with a human presence. Is that a motorbike way off in the background? And, no, that’s not the water’s edge but the end of a table. As these images pulse in and out of focus, visitors are forced to confront not only their feelings of recognition but also the vast amount that they cannot see and do not know. The florist is both a place to purchase beautiful things, but it is also a node in a largely unrecognised system of extraction and exchange.
Though I spent a lot of time looking at the rest of the Avant l’orage exhibition, I couldn’t help but return to the central rotunda. First to look at that damn picture, then to do one more lap of the wooden structures. This will be the last one, I promise myself. Invariably it never was. And this is the draw of TROPEAOLUM: what at first glance you believe to be one thing at the second turns into something else entirely (not to mention the third and fourth). You become caught in its cycle of renewal. The layout of the Bourse de Commerce lends itself particularly well to this – and the collection’s curators and Vo know it – not only can you view the central installation from ground level, but also from midway up the grey walls and even above them. Each view offers a new perspective, and as you reach the top you are sucked back down again. Rinse. Repeat.
Through this installation or, perhaps more aptly, collection, Vo deploys a fractal narrative to contrast diverse textures and objects to ask questions of form, process, and time. What does it mean to bind a glass test tube to a wooden sculpture? Or, why might it be interesting to place raw wood astride processed timber, as living plants knot between the two? As a visitor, you will find yourself in one moment staring up at the rigid lines of timber extending metres above you and in the next contemplating weather-beaten branches resting centimetres from your face. With each glance, the storm arrives, breaks, and renews.
Troy Fielder is a Contributor at Curation Space.
All photographs used in this article are the author's own, and depict TROPEAOLUM (2023).
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