The Propeller Group

Unpacking Vietnam’s dominant sociopolitical narratives – the artist collective’s show at MCA Chicago reviewed

By Sara Cluggish

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (still), 2014, video, 21 min 15 sec. © the artists. Courtesy James Cohan, New York

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 4 June – 13 November 2016

Based between Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, The Propeller Group is both a three-person art collective and production company who use their dual status to investigate the porous boundaries between advertising and art. While the group’s hybrid contemporaries Bernadette Corporation and K-Hole focus on individual, marketable versions of identity by incorporating high-end fashion or trend forecasting into their art practice, The Propeller Group harnesses the language of advertising to explore its effect on large political projects and nation building. Specifically, their work unpacks Vietnam’s dominant sociopolitical narratives in the transformational decades following the Vietnam-American War.

The Propeller Group at MCA Chicago is the collective’s first museum survey, showcasing work from the past five years.The exhibition includes seven moving-image works and a variety of related sculptures, all of which also appear on screen. The show opens with Television Commercial for Communism (2011), in which actors dressed head to toe in white, nondescript clothes are cast as the protagonists of amicable, every-day scenarios – a family sharing a meal, workers on a construction site or young creatives playing music together. A soothing voiceover reads lines from Manifesto for the New Communism (2011–16), a wall-mounted bolt of silk and hand-embroidered text that offers the affable invitation to “live as one and speak the language of smiles”. This utopic yet unsettling series of tableaux is a collaboration between The Propeller Group and the Vietnamese branch of TBWA, an advertising agency most widely known for its 1984 Super Bowl commercial that introduced Apple’s Macintosh computer. Television Commercial for Communism ironically employs a capitalist strategy to deliver a communist message, succinctly highlighting the complexities of present day Vietnam’s coexisting ideologies. Vietnam was one of the last countries to pivot towards global capitalism, and yet in the years since its 2007 entrance into the World Trade Organization (one year after the formation of The Propeller Group), it has become a fast-growing emergent economy, experiencing an influx of foreign brands.

This East–West ideological clash is underscored in AK-47 vs. M16 (2015–), an ongoing body of research into the Soviet AK-47 and American-made M16, two nearly identical rifles that first saw battle in the Vietnam-American War. The AK-47 vs. the M16: Gel Blocks (2015) is a visually-stunning series of six cubed gelatin sculptures, each the size of an elongated cinderblock, displayed within six custom-built chest-height vitrines. To create the sculptures, opposing rifles were each fired into either end of a gelatin block, a material that mimics the density of human tissue and is commonly used to study wound ballistics. The ammunition meets at a central collision point creating a radiating cloud of flaked shrapnel and bullet paths preserved like jagged cracks splitting ice. Despite their forensic and clinical appearance, the sculptures serve as visceral memorials to those wounded and killed during the Cold War.

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) is a vivid moving-image work that likens South Vietnamese funerary processions to the celebratory jazz funerals of New Orleans. The camera floats seamlessly through Vietnam’s wooded forests, tight urban passageways and the Mekong Delta, a landscape conflated with the Mississippi River Delta. Set to the bright, mellow sounds of a brass band, the film reaches its peak in a series of death-defying performances by a sword swallower, fire breather and snake charmer. Borrowing its slick overcrank camera technique from music videos, the work captures an ecstatic funeral in cele-bratory slow-motion. The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music takes its title from a Vietnamese Buddhist proverb calling for the playing of music for the dead. It depicts death not as an endpoint but a joyful transition – an act of reincarnation in a society that venerates its ancestors and the afterlife. 

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of ArtReview.