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Empire, Extinction and Ecstasy The US has long been both in denial and in thrall to the concept of empire. Izabella Scott looks at US colonial history through the lens of artists such as the Vietnamese-Danish Danh Vō, who lives and works in Germany and Mexico, and the writings of Chinese-American author Ling Ma. Chicxulub is the name of an impact crater, more than a hundred miles wide, formed when a city-sized asteroid hit the earth around 66 million years ago. The asteroid hit what is today the seabed just off the northern shore of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Its collision triggered earthquakes, eruptions, irestorms and a ring of tsunami waves a hundred miles high. The sky darkened; clouds of debris prevented photosynthesis for decades. Life on earth stuttered and then expired. Half the world’s species became extinct.

Ever since the crater was discovered by geophysicists in the 1970s, and especially during the internet era, Chicxulub has captured the imagination and become quasi-mythic. Invisible to the naked eye, the crater provided an irresistible opportunity for conjecture, attracting a rush of theories from the scienti ic world and popular culture alike – a fever nothing short of an extinction fetish. One scenario lodged itself in the public mind more than any other, that Chicxulub explains the dinosaur mass extinction. In this version of events, the largest, most spectacular creatures to have roamed the earth were wiped out in a single a ernoon.

‘Chicxulub’ is also the title of Danh Vō’s recent exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey, south London. As in past work (Interview AM372), Vō remains preoccupied by US imperialism and the history of Vietnam (his country of origin), but here his focus was intensi ied. ‘Chicxulub’ staged the death of the US, as Vō joined a lineage of artists and writers who have imagined America’s destruction, depicting a nation that has gone, as WEB Du Bois once warned in the late 1930s, ‘the way of the Roman Empire’.

To visitors, the gallery appeared as a bunker, dotted with stoves and crates holding sacred fragments, such as a worm-eaten torso of Christ and a splintered Madonna and Child. Whoever congregated here – be it displaced Americans or their Barbarians – had made efforts to rescue and cultivate plant life. In one room, beds of weeds and ferns grew under buzzing arti icial lights. In another, a dying apple tree had been propped up by wooden stilts. There was also a giant image of the US lag, which was incrementally destroyed over the exhibition’s run. The lag took over an entire wall of the gallery, was 10m wide and built from a pile of logs, which had been alternately stacked to evoke the stripes in bark and sapwood. Meanwhile, 13 metal stars had been inserted into the stack. The show’s running dates provided clues to the particulars of Rome’s fall, opening on the anniversary of 9/11 and closing on 2 November, US election night. Every day the exhibition was open, logs were removed to burn in the stoves, and the lag shrunk. As Americans headed to the polls, the silver stars were le as ruins, rolling to the loor.

Flag desecration has a long, in lammatory history in the US, most poignantly as a feature of protests against the Vietnam War. At the same time, US artists like Jasper Johns have depicted the lag – rendered 40 times across his career – in apparent critiques of imperialism, made complex by their immense popularity. In these works, Johns’s iconoclasm bleeds together with the pleasure so many US citizens take in looking at the lag in all its glory – a stain of narcissism that renders the work’s politics ambivalent. Constructed in Europe, Vō’s shrinking and eventually incinerated lag symbolised a diminishing respect for the US – the show’s dinosaur – which has now reached home. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has indulged a myth of being the global peacekeeper, purveyor of liberal democracy, but that myth was rarely convincing to anyone other than its own citizens. During this period, capitalism was exported by the US around the world, apparently in the name of progress, pro it and peace, using the age-old method of warfare. Indeed, between 1945 and 2020, the US took part in 211 military engagements in 67 countries (according to historian Daniel Immerwahr’s book How to Hide an Empire). For those on the receiving end of US aggression, like Vō, whose family was forced to lee South Vietnam in 1979 on a homemade boat during the Vietnam War, the US was always a warmonger, using its power to promote the rule of wealth, not peace.

By staging the US’s Chicxulub moment, Vō suggests that an era of American exceptionalism is over. It’s unclear where this ictional bunker was meant to be located – in the ruins of Washington DC or somewhere far away from the centre. Inside, the relics of an obliterated US included religious ephemera combined with consumer packaging. In Untitled, 2020, a 15th-century bust of Christ was slotted inside a Carnation Milk crate. In other works with the same non-title, a church window showing the biblical Magi cast light on a gilded Coca-Cola carrier, embossed with holly for the Christmas season. Here, Vō’s established method of splicing together objects from different orders and eras – seen across his practice – is deployed to compare religion and capitalism, both of which are shown to have colonialist and imperialist intentions.

The sculptures dotted around the bunker also re lected on Vietnamese history, the region having suffered several waves of invasion, irst by French Catholic missionaries and later by US commercial assault (when plain old colonisation was replaced by Coca-Colanisation, as the French communist party named it). Vō was four years old when his family

From the beginning, US politicians have always had an aversion to using the

‘c-word’, as Daniel Immerwahr calls it, and ‘colony’ was shunned in favour of the gentler-sounding ‘territory’, which didn’t undermine the US’s vision of itself as modern, democratic, libertarian and, most importantly, moral.


Art Monthly no. 442, December 2020 – January 2021

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