02.02.1861, 2009, last letter of Saint Theophane Vénard to his father before he was decapitated, copied by Phung Vo, ink on paper, 29.6 × 21 cm


Danh Vo’s works are closely connected to, and continuously reflect, his family’s history against the backdrop of a contemporary world increasingly defined by migration and exile. Vo’s family fled from Vietnam in 1980 and was picked up from their self-made boat by a tanker from Denmark, where they later received citizenship. Vo’s artistic strategy lies in the displacement of signs and meanings across the registers of secluded identities and historical experience. His work seems to suggest that in the aftermath of colonial and imperial mass displacement that characterizes the world today, it is not “meaning” as such that counts most, but rather the way it is situated, materialized, and enacted, thus positioning the negotiation of composite identity within the question of their “framing.” 

In one of his researches, Danh Vo followed the traces of French missionaries that were sent to Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century by the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. He particularly looked into the lives of those missionaries that were murdered for their attempts to convert people to Christianity. 

The work 2.2.1861 is a handwritten copy of a farewell letter written by the French missionary Théophane Vénard to his father. Théophane Vénard left France for the Far East in 1852 and worked in Hong Kong for fifteen months before being transferred to Vietnam, where he was captured in 1860. He was given the option of renouncing his Christianity but refused. As a consequence, he was sentenced to decapitation. The letter was written a few days before he was killed on February 2, 1861. 

The letter is copied by Danh Vo’s father each time it is sold or an exhibition copy needs to be made, and this will happen until demand runs out or until the father dies. Danh Vo’s father—a Catholic himself—owes his handwriting skills to the fact that Vietnam, under French rule, adopted the Roman alphabet. Though these skills can help you get a better job in Vietnam, they were never beneficial to Danh Vo’s father, since he did not master the Danish language after he arrived in Denmark. 

Danh Vo, born 1975 in Vietnam, lives and works in Berlin