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Bowditch Alphabet

A work made of gold leaf on cardboard.

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  • A work made of gold leaf on cardboard.




Danh Vo
Danish, born Vietnam 1975

About this artwork

Danh Vo explained, “All of my projects tend to deal with issues that are taking place right around me—my private sphere, my love life, my desires, other people’s projections on me and my identities.” When he was a child, Vo’s family left Vietnam in a boat built by his father. By chance, they were picked up by a Danish freighter and brought to Denmark, where they became citizens. Through performance-based works inspired by his life experiences and historically rich readymade objects, Vo reveals the construction of inherited cultural values, conflicts, and displacement.

For Bowditch Alphabet, Vo collaged letters of the worldwide naval code system with contrasting ethnographic materials. When constructing the 25 naval time zones in the early 1800s, American mathematician Nathanial Bowditch decided to skip the letter J as it is the most difficult to pronounce in multiple languages. Bowditch’s navigation system, created with the Latin alphabet (which has its own storied history of adaptations and modifications, and was the source of the Vietnamese alphabet), became a shipping industry standard that advanced global trade and the potential for colonialization. Vo’s cardboard came from unfolded boxes for condensed milk—a foreign product that was likely introduced to contemporary Thai and Vietnamese consumer culture through wartime care packages. The artist applied gold leaf to the packaging in the traditional style of gilded Asian temples in order to contrast the cultural and monetary values of each.


Currently Off View


Contemporary Art


Danh Vo


Bowditch Alphabet


Denmark (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Gold leaf on cardboard


Variable with installation: 426.8 × 426.8 × 1005.9 cm (168 × 168 × 396 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Society for Contemporary Art

Reference Number


Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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