Giant puzzle that can't be pieced together

Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo's installation features larger- than-life wooden puzzles with interlocking joints.
Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo's installation features larger- than-life wooden puzzles with interlocking joints.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo's installation features larger- than-life wooden puzzles with interlocking joints.
Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo's installation features larger- than-life wooden puzzles with interlocking joints.PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The art installation that inaugurates the National Gallery Singapore's Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden commission series is neither loud nor imposing, but it resounds with meaning and invites contemplation.

The commissioned work by renowned Vietnam-born Danish artist Danh Vo, 41, features larger- than-life wooden puzzles with interlocking joints. The puzzle pieces have been taken apart to form low-lying sculptures on a floor made of copper sheets. Resting among the blocks is a marble sculpture dated between the first and second century, of two child-like figures locked in an embrace.

The roof garden commission series invites an international artist each year to create an installation that responds to the museum.

The series is named after the late Mr Ng Teng Fong, founder of property developer Far East Organization, to commemorate a $20-million donation by his family to the museum for its research, curatorial and exhibition work.

  • VIEW IT / DANH VO FOR THE NG TENG FONG ROOF GARDEN COMMISSION

  • WHERE: National Gallery Singapore, Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Gallery, Level 5, City Hall Wing, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Till Aug 31, the museum's opening hours are 10am to 7pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays and Saturdays)

    ADMISSION: Free

The museum's director Eugene Tan says it chose to work with Vo for the inaugural commission because his work "looks at the relationship between art and history in interesting ways", often exploring the intersection between personal and geo-political histories.

Vo's family fled postwar Vietnam in 1979 in a handmade boat and was rescued by a Danish merchant ship, which stopped briefly in Singapore before arriving in Denmark where his family was granted political asylum and citizenship.

Mr Tan says Vo, who attended The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the contemporary fine arts school Stadelschule in Frankfurt, is also adept at using different approaches, including pastiche and institutional critique, to convey his ideas.

One of Vo's well-known works, We The People (2010-2014), is a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty, albeit unassembled. The 250 copper pieces that make up the replica are dispersed around the world in public and private collections.

The work raises questions about the relationship between the state and an individual's national identity and it also reflects Vo's thinking about public sculptures.

"I'm not one to valorise ornamental public visual art," he says.

For him, public sculpture, rather than being a self-serving monument, should draw the public in to touch, see and engage with it.

His approach is influenced by the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who believed that art is an aesthetic and cultural tool that can connect the individual to society, and through forms such as public playgrounds. This philosophy is at play in Vo's installation for the museum's roof garden and the motif of the wooden puzzles is apt.

The public can sit on the blocks and take in the skyline or its reflection in the copper sheets or try to mentally assemble the puzzle pieces to form geometrical shapes.

The wooden puzzles, for Vo, carry deeper meaning. Based on the ancient joinery technique in woodworking which the Chinese were famed for, they are a metaphor of his experience of cultural assimilation as an immigrant.

He says: "People at school in Denmark would talk about cartoons or things they grew up with, but we were not a part of that, we could barely speak the language. What we became good at were subjects - mathematics, engineering, things that were technical."

His engagement with Danish culture, therefore, was not forged over the complex histories and heritage of the place, but through "something practical and mathematical", a reversal of common wisdom about cultural understanding, which to him is embodied by the wooden puzzle.

As for constructing his installation with materials that age easily in Singapore's hot and humid weather, he says: "The best sculptor is weather and time. They are the ones that really make beautiful things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Giant puzzle that can't be pieced together'. Print Edition | Subscribe