IT'S A GREY, overcast afternoon and I'm sitting on a lurid green sofa on the terrace of Duddell's restaurant, wreathed in a cloud of smoke. Artists Danh Vo and Nairy Baghramian are puffing away on cigarettes at either side of me. The bleary-eyed pair, who have been up all night installing an exhibition, have come out for some air after a day packed with interviews.
One of today's hottest contemporary artists, Vo has collectors across the globe salivating over his work. Born in South Vietnam in 1975, he fled the country with his family by sea and later settled in Denmark after being rescued by a Danish freighter. Over the years he's built a reputation for unusual conceptual works, including one in which he marries and immediately divorces a growing list of individuals. He's perhaps best known for his mammoth sculpture We the People, for which he had a full-size cast of the Statue of Liberty fabricated in separate fragments using 30 tonnes of copper sheets. He spread the pieces throughout the world, never to be reunited.
For all his fame, however, Vo is notorious for keeping a low profile – avoiding issuing press releases before his exhibitions, hardly being photographed and skirting around questions about his work in interviews. Preferring his art to speak for itself, he's reluctant to offer explanation. So it comes as no surprise when he begins our interview with a disclaimer that this show isn't all about him. He's slightly ruffled by the morning of questions targeting him and his career. “Maybe it's good that you ask questions to both of us,” he says firmly in his Germanic accent, gesturing at his co-conspirator Baghramian, an Iranian-born sculptor whom he befriended years ago.
For their debut show in Hong Kong, the pair subtly infiltrated Duddell's with an intimate exhibition focusing on the work of the radical Swiss-born interior architect and designer Janette Laverrière, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 101. Asked how the idea for the show came together, Vo deflects the question with a joke: “If I knew, I would be a very rich person,” he laughs. I try asking how he and Baghramian began working together, and he's more receptive: “At a certain point one has to do more collaborations. It's so horrible to do these solo exhibitions, working alone. You get depressed.”
Baghramian adds that the show evolved naturally from their ongoing discussions about Laverrière, with whom she collaborated for the 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art in 2008. Baghramian first came across Laverrière's work by chance during a trip to New York when she ducked into a bookstore on a rainy day and discovered a monograph on the designer. She was fascinated and decided to track her down. The pair instantly hit it off.
A visionary ahead of her time, Laverrière was constantly pushing the boundaries of design despite persistently being marginalised. “When you look back to the history of interior architecture [in the '30s and '40s] you wonder how gender specific it is,” says Baghramian. “Most of [the practitioners] are gay or women. The exterior, the visibility of architecture, always belonged to men – I learned that from Janette, I didn't know there was a division. She said, ‘Nairy, never use the word “architecture”. Always use the words “exterior architecture”, because it's the skin that belongs to the man and we have to occupy the interior space again.' ”
Vo was similarly intrigued to learn about the role of women in architectural history. “It was a revelation for me: how designers from certain periods were creating their own interior space because there was no space for them in the public. That's such a beautiful idea.”
The pair decided to exhibit a collection of Laverrière's “useful and useless” interior objects ranging from lamps and chairs to pieces that served more as works of art, such as the mirrors that she once deliberately hung so high as to offer no reflection. “It's fantastic to make these kinds of things when you're 90. That's how you should work,” says Vo, in awe. “Even without any invitations [to exhibit] she was sitting at home and doing all these things,” chimes in Baghramian.
The majority of the exhibition's works cluster around the imposing marble staircase leading up to Duddell's bar-turned-art space. “The whole staircase is beautiful because it's something between the outside and inside. It embraces the idea that she never could have that moment of being on the outside,” Baghramian says. On a tall, narrow wall in the stairwell is a bouquet of red lamps titled Chapeau Chinois, shaped like the conical bamboo hats worn throughout Asia. “She dedicated them to the Chinese women rice workers who wore these hats to protect themselves from the light. But she turned the [place where you'd normally find a] head into a light.”
As you climb the stairs, a series of colourful mirrors hold the attention. They range from a circular mirror with a rainbow border that pays homage to the gay and lesbian community to one that's an ode to Obama inscribed with Martin Luther King's words, “I have a dream”. Baghramian explains that the designer never saw her work as “dead objects”; instead, every piece was embedded with narratives and carried political and social references.
Upstairs are more Chapeau Chinois lamps discreetly placed above seating areas and a pair of retro-looking chairs beside which is a stack of cardboard cartons by Vo enveloped in gold leaf printed with the Colgate logo, one of his two works in the show. “I like big, evil brands,” he grins, explaining that he began experimenting with gold leaf after a stint in Thailand. Meanwhile, Baghramian's contribution to the show sits at the foot of the stairs below – a playful sculpture title Eule (Owl), a resin cast of a backside attached to a stool. The large curved forms echo the shape of an owl's eyes.
“It's a gesture,” she says of including her work in the show. “So as not to misuse the surplus value to presenting [Laverrière]. Just to be honest that this is a very simple conversation between three artists.” Vo expands on this, explaining that the show was a deliberately open, experimental venture and a calculated choice for his debut in Hong Kong.
Vo had been planning to exhibit in Hong Kong when Doryun Chong, chief curator at M+, suggested that he gradually familiarise the audience with his work. “He told me it could be very nice to slowly introduce reference points, because no artist comes from nowhere,” Vo says. “It's through relationships and through knowledge-building with other culture producers, he said. I totally agreed with him that this is a great way of doing things, especially in Hong Kong where you have all these monster galleries coming, positing this artist and that artist. It's so constructed.”
Indeed, looking at the works scattered across Duddell's, the show is nothing like the tightly installed white-cube exhibitions of foreign artists that have been popping up in the city. Asked if people will miss the works and presume they're furniture, Baghramian says, “I like this passing-by idea that you just notice something and you're not forced [to engage].” Vo nods. Like much of his art, he avoids the limelight, imposing nothing and leaving it entirely in the hands of the viewer.