Vietnam-based art collective The Propeller Group merges artistic and commercial practice to unveil the shadows of capitalism, communism, consumerism, and shared cultural histories.
On show at MCA Chicago until 13 November 2016, The Propeller Group’s retrospective exhibition features some of the collective’s major works that explore Vietnamese society and history through a global lens.
“The Propeller Group” is organised as a collaboration between three museums in the United States and features seven major multi-part projects created by the art collective in the past five years. The exhibition was launched on 4 June 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, curated by Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator Naomi Beckwith and is the first in the MCA’s Ascendant Artist series to feature a collective. In 2017, it will run at Phoenix Art Museum from 18 February to 14 May curated by Gilbert Vicario, and will move to Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston from 3 June to 1 October curated by Claudia Schmuckli.
The exhibition is a comprehensive way to understand the major driving forces in The Propeller Group’s artistic practice, which sits in between fine art and media production, blurring the boundaries between two divergent creative modes – the artistic and the commercial. Defying any definition or categorisation, the group and its oeuvre exist in an “errant form”, as Beckwith calls artistic languages and modes that evade curatorial apprehension or comprehension.
The six of the seven projects are displayed in the galleries, while a new feature-length film entitled AK–47 vs. M16, The Film is periodically screened in the MCA’s theatre. As MCA writes,
These projects represent the scope of the group’s artistic practice, and each work provides timely commentary on the commercialization of world conflicts. From the Honda Dream to Hollywood, The Propeller Group embraces popular culture and asks that we reconsider how political campaigns, television commercials, and movies operate in similar ways. The artists also reflect on how image production shapes cultural memory and the politics of identity.
The Propeller Group and its reincarnation
The Propeller Group was born around 2006, with three members – Matt Lucero (b. 1976), Phunam (b. 1974) and Tuan Andrew Nguyen (b. 1976). Lucero and Nguyen had met as graduate students at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and had started collaborating there. After graduation, Nguyen moved to Vietnam to pursue his own artistic practice, and met Phunam in Ho Chi Minh City, with whom he started shooting videos commercially, for television as well as film.
The Propeller Group is an entity that defies categorisation as it functioned both as an artist collective and as a media production company. This ambiguity or existence in a sort of liminal space was born out of necessity, when Nguyen and Phunam were working on a documentary film project on the first generation of graffiti artists in Vietnam. The Propeller Group, in order to shoot freely in public spaces, decided to incorporate as an advertising company – TPG.
The group started to work both on commercial as well as artistic projects, but it was never completely understood whether there was a clear separation between the two practices. In a talk at MCA, Tuan Andrew Nguyen reveals:
Graffiti is a long-running thread in our work and we soon realized that it was almost impossible to shoot in public, to film in public without a license. So it was a very kind of pragmatic kind of resolution to kinda license ourselves and to be able to carry equipment out in public to gather images and stories. While we were incorporating, we realized that there were different licenses that we could register under and, at this time in the economic development of Vietnam, advertising was becoming really big, so we soon realized that advertising companies had much more access to the public space than other companies did so we registered as an advertising company. We knew nothing about advertising. We knew we hated advertising and that was the irony of that move for us and we’ve kind of explored that kind of theme since then.
Since their establishment, The Propeller Group has assembled an oeuvre that includes films, installations, branding campaigns, television shows, music videos and even production work for other artists such as Ho Chi Minh City-based Dinh Q. Lê (b. 1968) or the art trio Superflex (Danish, founded 1993). Curator, writer and Founding Director of the Mistake Room in Los Angeles, Cesar Garcia, writes in his catalogue essay that The Propeller Group work in an expanded field of meaning, where even if textual definitions remains blurry,
the ambiguity surrounding the group and its work actually has well-defined parameters. The anxiety brought on by its dual identity as an “art collective” and a “media company” has been assuaged by its embrace of an inclusive identity for which terms like “collective” and “team” are interchangeable with “company” and “platform.” Its projects can be referred to as “critical engagements,” “interventions,” and “disruptions,” but also “original creative content,” “mainstream media,” and “full- service productions.”
Shortly before the opening of the MCA show, The Propeller Group “transitioned to reincarnation” on 1 March 2016 with a ceremony presided by Mr Thanh, a fortune teller. Phunam went to the fortune teller to ask for the most auspicious day for the rebirth of The Propeller Group, as its original founding date had been a key element in the destructive fate of the group. Tuan Andrew Nguyen writes in the obituary of the group entitled “The Mythology Of Dying. An Obituary For The Propeller Group”, published in the exhibition catalogue, that its members are survived in reincarnation “by the three alter-egos of their last iteration, Matt Lucero, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Phunam”.
A new brand of Communism
The Propeller Group utilise forms from popular media and visual culture to address global commerce, war and violence, cultural rituals and historical memories. Based in Vietnam, and sometimes Los Angeles, they challenge the West as the privileged vantage point, and often take as their point of departure Vietnam and Vietnamese cultural and socio-political realities and history.
Opening the exhibition is a project that comprises a video entitled Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2011), and an installation of flags called Flag for the New Communism (2011-2016) with a banner, Manifesto for the New Communism (2011-2016). Vietnam was one of the last communist countries to open up to global capitalism, and joined the World Trade Organisation only in 2007. Since then, the influx of foreign brands has been unstoppable and increases exponentially. From Coca-Cola to McDonald’s and Starbucks, advertisement of such brands appear side by side with propaganda posters. In this project, The Propeller Group ‘packages’ the ideology of communism through the filter of capitalism (advertising and branding).
The Propeller Group commissioned leading ad agency TBWA\Vietnam to reimagine communism, translating it into a stylish product for consumers worldwide, as they have done with Apple and Nissan among other clients. The image that the campaign and logo communicate is one of peaceful and tranquil existence, bathed in happiness and ease, with a “collection of smiles” that is transformed into the flag logo. With the predominant white colour of the surroundings and the clothing, the people of diverse ethnicities portrayed in the video seem to coexist in a reality taken out of science-fiction utopia, where conflict does not exist and the violent history of communism is forgotten.
A history of the future
The sci-fi environment makes a new appearance in The History of the Future (2012) [not in the show], which is an ongoing project in that it will only come to completion one hundred years after its starting date. In 2012, The Propeller Group sold locked, steel safes to three collectors. Each safe contained the GPS coordinates to unearth a sculpture that the collective had made and buried in an undisclosed location, as documented in the video The History of the Future, The Burial. The safes will automatically open at the same time in 2112, and the first collector who will reach the sculpture, will also possess it. The sculpture, called The Phaser, is a futuristic weapon looking like one from Star Trek or Star Wars, but made in carved jackfruit wood. During the burial, the artists wore white hazmat suits and protective gear, as burying a dangerous cargo.
This work, like all of The Propeller Group’s, takes into consideration East and West, their correlation and their divergences, and the values that the West assigns to artefacts coming out of the East.
A question of authenticity
In 2010, the group had already addressed the value of artefacts coming from the East to the West, while also exploring their return home. The art collective Superflex invited The Propeller Group to produce a TV mini-series on the story of a porcelain vase travelling from Southeast Asia to Holland in the 17th century. At that time, when porcelain wasn’t yet produced in the West, its value was very high and the vase helped fund Holland’s independence from Habsburg Spain. The Propeller Group sent props to Holland, but when they sent them back to Vietnam, they had problems with custom agents who were worried about illicit antique traders.
In the exhibition, the video Fade In: Ext. Storage – Cu Chi – Day… (2010) reenacts the events that took place between the group and the custom agents in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010, and “draws out the relationship of commandeering commodities and the possession of histories, both personal and historical”. The work calls into play colonial histories and present national anxieties, and as Faye Gleisser writes about the work in the catalogue,
Like FedEx and cultural fictions about authenticity that monitor capital flow and national identity today, The Propeller Group suggests that objects, especially those imbued with national memory or identity, link our contemporary systems of trans- port and economic trade with events and institutions set in place centuries ago.
Possessing the dream
In 2012, The Propeller Group parked a much-coveted motorbike in Vietnam, the Honda Dream, in an open courtyard in Ho Chi Minh City and left it there unattended for a few hours during the day and overnight, filming the site from a hidden spot. In a video in speed-motion, pedestrians and bikers pass by during the day, but after nightfall, the activity around the bike picks up until expert thieves detach parts of the bike one by one. In the end, only the frame is left, and is now part of the installation.
The Honda Dream was marketed, since its introduction to Vietnam in 1985, as the bike for the everyman, and still is today due to its relatively low cost and high quality. It was a symbol of independence in a country that was still slowed down by economic restrictions and the post-war period. The carcass of the bike stands in the gallery as the result of unrestrained consumer desire, but also as a testimony to the cultivation of expertise and labour that characterises Vietnamese society, whose individuals have grown accustomed to achieving high levels of manual labour to survive and make a living out of the conflictual everyday in contemporary Vietnam.
War, Weapons and Hollywood
In the video entitled The Guerillas of Cu Chi (2010) The Propeller Group capture the open air shooting range at the Cu Chi tunnels, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, where during the war with the United States, the Vietnamese hid to plan their guerilla warfare. The shooting range is a place where tourists over 14 years old can experience the ‘excitement’ of shooting a target with a firearm – mounted AK-47s and M16s, the weapons used during the war.
The video takes the vantage point of the target rather than the shooters, and in the gallery space, visitors experience the work as if they were the moving target at the shooting range. The Cu Chi site, a repository of national identity and history, is through the collective’s lens and global tourism transformed into a battlefield where historical and cultural memory are continually renovated and distorted.
AK47 VS. M16 (2015) and the related Collateral Damage series of works on paper with fragments of bullets explore the positioning of guns as symbols of violence and visualisations of histories of war. The AK-47 is produced by the Soviet military, the M16 is American-made; the first is associated with non-Western, ‘rebel’ identities, while the M16 is the ‘saviour’s’ weapon, as can be clearly seen through The Propeller Group’s montage of footage from Hollywood movies – the feature-length AK47 vs. M16, The Film (2015).
For the installation, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015, The Propeller Group worked with engineers in a controlled ballistics testing facility, arranging for the two “rival” weapons to be simultaneously fired directly at one another into ballistics gel that is made to resemble the density of human muscle tissue. The resulting 21 gel blocks that comprise the work reference the 21-gun salute used by the US military to commemorate war heroes. A video of the experiment in slow motion accompanies the sculptural series.
Part of the project is a series of four panels of black matte paper onto which are collected fragments of the bullets fallen out of the collision. In the collection of works there is no winner between the two; both guns are participants in the creation of conflict and creators of damage to an equal share.
In the feature-length film, The Propeller Group has edited fragments from Hollywood movies, promotional videos, documentaries, news reportage and YouTube clips. The main characters of AK47 vs. M16, The Film are the two guns that have come to symbolise the two opposing forces in an ideological and cultural battle that originated with the Cold War.
In the film the narrator describes the AK-47 as “Russia’s greatest export”, as Nicholas Cage intones in a voice-over, “so simple even a child could use it—and they do”. In a documentary, the M16 is called “a sexy space age marvel” made of aluminium and fiberglass, and said to be “the most effective assault rifle ever used in combat”, which “For over thirty years […] has been a potent symbol of American strength worldwide.”
Naturally, among the clips are some taken from movies about the war in Vietnam, such as Platoon, Rambo and Forrest Gump. Gradually, the film includes newer movies, with new settings, shifting from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts and dusty expanses of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to gangland Los Angeles.
Life and Death
In 2014, The Propeller Group expanded their explorations of life and death to the depths of cultural traditions, to examine the funerary rites and music of Vietnam and New Orleans. The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) was originally created for Prospect.3 New Orleans Biennial in 2014, and is a poetic voyage through the funeral traditions of South Vietnam and their counterpart in New Orleans. It is shot in ultra-high-definition video and produced with the technical sophistication of a Hollywood film. On The Propeller Group’s website, the collective explain that the film
attempts to engage in dialogue with funerary traditions that pulsate in the same vein throughout the global south. The film merges documentary footage of actual funeral processions with stunning re-enactments that bring the film into the realm of the abstract, poetic and metaphorical – a rumination on death and the lives that pay homage to it.
In both Vietnam and New Orleans, funerals are typically accompanied by brass bands, although sometimes Vietnamese ceremonies might feature more traditional instruments and music. In the film, the music mutates from traditional Vietnamese music into a torch song with brass accompaniment, and finally to a New Orleans–style jazz number. The landscapes are also put into comparison, with the Mississippi and the Mekong Deltas showing similar environments. Accompanying the video are sculptures that recall ceremonial objects, like a jewelled ox skull and a carved wooden snake also used as props in the film. With this work, The Propeller Group highlights shared histories and traditions, to efface, if only momentarily, in death, the conflict that has shaped the shared history of the two locales.
In the MCA Talk, Tuan Andrew Nguyen explains about the work:
The title of the film comes from a Vietnamese proverb that kind of explains the kind of approach to celebrating one’s life through celebrating their death and a lot of the ceremonies and the rituals that are brought into these celebrations are kinda fantastic. They’re beautiful acts of death-defying actions. There’s a lot of music, a lot of celebrations. Some of these celebrations could last from two days up until nine days, I heard from someone, and they’re very public. And because the way that the houses are kind of situated in Vietnam, there’s a very thin kind of barrier between public and private.
People kind of live in public. It’s a very street-oriented culture and so when these funerals happen, they start inside the home but the home opens up out into the public and the doors are open and people can come and celebrate with the family. Complete strangers will come and celebrate with the family. You drink. You eat. There’s bands. There’s a procession that happens. And it’s […] one of the reasons why we got interested in this phenomena because the transgendered and the transvestite communities take this opportunity to come and perform in public so it becomes an area of protest and resistance or something like that.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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- “Another World”: Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien – April 2016 – the result of her recent residency in Berlin, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s latest project explores the anonymity of a migrant’s life in a new city
- Hollywood, violence and contemporary Vietnam: Dinh Q. Lê – artist profile – July 2015 – Art Radar explores the multifaceted practice of Dinh Q. Lê, one of the most influential and internationally recognised Vietnamese contemporary artists
- Shifting tensions in Vietnamese contemporary art: A brief history – January 2015 – Art Radar takes a look at Vietnam’s art historical context to explain the dynamics of its contemporary art,
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