Guns, Guerrillas, Music Videos: The Propeller Group at the MCA Chicago and James Cohan
The Propeller Group at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
June 4 to November 13, 2016
220 East Chicago Avenue (at Mies van der Rohe Way)
Chicago, IL, 312 280 2660
The Propeller Group: The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music at James Cohan Gallery
April 8 to May 15, 2016
291 Grand Street (at Eldridge Street)
New York, 212 714 9500
In the West, many people are privileged to maintain a distance from the visceral effects of economic and social inequalities. The Propeller Group, however, wants us to confront them. Their work around branding and marketing strategies, notions of nation building, propaganda, and the collective vs. individual, will help viewers consider those systems and recognize how we might be complicit in them and, perhaps, undo them.
Their collective — comprised of core members Phunam, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Matt Lucero — began working together officially in 2006, but had met and worked together in graduate school at CalArts (Nguyen and Lucero) and upon meeting back to their home country of Vietnam (Phunam and Nguyen in 2005). The members, each an artist in his own right, formed the collective to realize ambitious art projects and large-scale productions with Vietnamese artists. Their first solo museum exhibition, featuring seven videos and installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, highlight the importance of the convergence of the fine and commercial art worlds in their practice. The group’s ability to shape shift and code switch among genres, traditions, and cultures from the East and West helps them make meaningful critiques of consumer culture, politics and the effects on the human condition.
As young men coming of age in the ’90s — all three cite hip-hop and graffiti culture as important to their mode — The Propeller Group carry the residue of the social and cultural context of the time. In art schools, scholars tended to focus more on theories like deconstructionism, institutional critique, and identity politics over examinations of the discrete art object. During their time at CalArts, Lucero and Nguyen were students of Daniel Joseph Martinez, whose installation at the controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial included distributing admission buttons spelling out “I CAN’T EVER IMAGINE WANTING TO BE WHITE.” Migration is an important influence too: All identify as people of color, Lucero a California native, and Nguyen and Phunam as refugees whose families fled Vietnam during the war.
Guns serve as an important motif in their work, particularly Cold War-era Russian and American assault rifles: the AK-47 and M16. (They’ve even made a feature length film out of montaged YouTube clips, Hollywood films, documentaries, and promotional video about the firearms.) A 21-minute video, The AK-47 vs. The M16 (2015), most recently on view at James Cohan’s Lower East Side location and originally conceived for the 56th Venice Biennale, features a series of blocks made of ballistics gelatin embedded with discharges from each rifle fired simultaneously, and a video of the blast. The video captures the bullets penetrating the gel blocks and colliding with each other. At one point a gun misfires and the discharge creates a smooth trajectory; in another, both guns fire on each other, creating a collision manifesting like ink blots or paint pours. The gel blocks, sealed in resin under vitrines, are often used in ballistics tests and are designed to mimic the qualities of human flesh. While the blocks capture the violence of the blasts and freeze it in time, the effect is diminished after watching the live firing in the video, making the sculptures feel like a redundant let-down. But this can be a shortfall of overtly political art: how to create effective — not overwrought — affect. Works like the sculptures of The AK-47 vs. The M16 or Television Commercial for Communism (2011) fall into such didactic trappings, but that cannot be attributed to the fact that The Propeller Group also has another life in commercial art and advertising. Their work is simply more effective when they collapse the distance between the politics and the person.
Collateral Damage (2015), for example, also mines the theme of guns and violence, but the simple gesture of capturing the pattern of stippling and bullet fragments skipping and tearing across black paper is haunting in its austerity. The Guerrillas of Cu Chi (2012), which uses a propaganda film as part of the installation, is very successful at underscoring the human costs of war. In a darkened room, two videos on opposite walls depict scenes from the Cu Chi district in Ho Chi Minh City where Viet Cong fighters built a complex of tunnels — critical to defeating the US military in spite of its technological superiority. In the black-and-white propaganda film, the narrator describes how the people enjoyed picnicking in Cu Chi, “Until the merciless Americans began dropping their bombs […] on it.” Facing this film, modern day tourists are shown taking photos and selfies at the shooting range that currently stands on the site as captions from the black-and-white film flash across the bottom. The juxtaposition, while seemingly moralistic on the surface, highlights the differences in the way histories are remembered depending on who remembers them.
The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) is perhaps the group’s most lyrical statement to explore the central concerns of their work. Part of this lies in the aesthetic: The Propeller Group used an “overcrank” technique to shoot frames at a higher rate than normal, allowing the footage to appear like slow motion when played back at standard speed. If you’ve ever seen the movie Chariots of Fire (1981) or nearly any shampoo commercial ever, you are familiar with this technique and know that if done poorly, overcrank can appear hokey and amateurish. The film was originally created for Prospect.3, the third Prospect New Orleans biennial, held from 2014 to 2015, and one wonders: is it the film’s focus on funerary practices in Vietnam and their echoes to those specific to New Orleans, the abundant images of water, references to mysticism, transformation, and change that make it effective, or something else? The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music leaves room for the consideration and contemplation, the joy and sadness — the range of human emotions the world often asks us to elide. Facing the feeling, sitting with the rage, discomfort, confusion or sadness, however, is exactly what The Propeller Group may intend for viewers. These are not the cynical acts of ad men, but the hopeful ones that only artists make.