Communism hasn’t taken hold at Phoenix Art Museum. But you will find a communist manifesto, along with three flags and a TV commercial for a new communism prominently displayed there.
That’s because the museum recently opened “The Propeller Group,” an exhibition named for the Vietnam-based art collective that explores the intersection of advertising and propaganda.
Taking a deep dive into the exhibition can be a little daunting, because the collective’s work is rooted in the complexities of recent history and contemporary life. So we’ve put together a user’s guide, with key points culled from conversations with The Propeller Group artists and the exhibition catalogue.
We suspect you’ll get more out of the show if you know a little something about the art collective and its work before you see it. Of course, how you interpret their work is up to you.
Most importantly, you should allow ample time to explore the exhibition. You’ll need at least an hour to tour the show, which features several videos that create important context for the other art objects and artifacts in the exhibition. If you can spare 90 minutes, even better.
What is The Propeller Group?
The Propeller Group is a three-person art collective based in Vietnam. Artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam hail from Ho Chi Minh City, and Matt Lucero hails from Southern California. All three were born during the mid-1970s and identify as people of color. Lucero and Nguyen hold MFA degrees from California Institute of the Arts.
How did The Propeller Group start?
The artists founded The Propeller Group in 2006, but realized that making art in Vietnam could be a dangerous affair. So they formed an advertising agency, which gave them more freedom to do the filmmaking that’s central to their work. They also founded the contemporary art organization Sàn Art based in Los Angeles and Saigon (which Vietnamese officials renamed Ho Chi Min City after the Vietnam War).
What exactly do they make?
They’ve created films, art installation, sculptures, paintings, drawings, branding campaigns, TV shows, and music videos. And they’ve done production work for other artists. Basically, they take a cross-disciplinary approach that plays with traditional boundaries between fine art and mainstream media.
What’s the historical context for their work?
In a word, globalization. Vietnam was inundated with global brands after opening its borders to global industrial capitalism during the late 1990s. Even so, exhibition catalogue author Naomi Beckwith explains, Vietnam continued to struggle with censorship, corruption, inequality, and surveillance.
Does the exhibition address the Vietnam War?
Yes and no. The artists explore the war’s significance, and it’s helpful to know something about the war when viewing their work. But they also address ways Vietnam’s social, economic, and political landscape has shifted during the post-war era.
What about other influences?
The artists came of age during the heyday of graffiti, hip-hop, and street culture, which influences their work. But they’ve got other shared interests, including personal histories, origin stories, and death, which often inform their work.
What's the significance of this exhibit?
This is the first time works in this exhibition have been shown together. The show was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. "The Propeller Group" is the curatorial debut for Gilbert Vicario, who joined the museum as chief curator in late 2015.
What’s included in the show?
“The Propeller Group” includes seven multipart projects from the last five years, shown in three galleries on the main and lower floors of the museum’s south wing. Here are the basics about each project.
- Television Commercial for Communism (2013): It’s hard to miss this one, which includes three large-scale flags atop pristine white flagpoles, a silk banner, and a television commercial for communism. Each features a logo comprising curved smile-style lines that interlock to create a blossom-like logo. And each prompts reflection on consumerism as the new global language.
- Fade In… (2010): This project has two components – a sculptural installation and a video that's about five and a half minutes long. You’ll see a wall lined with an elaborately carved wooden entrance for a Vietnamese house, and a video (it’s title is the video’s whole five-page script) that plays with themes of cultural artifacts, appropriation, and authenticity in the context of artist conversations with a Fed Ex delivery driver.
- The Dream (2012): Again, the collective couples a video with an installation. In this case, it’s a motorbike frame, coupled with a video that shows what happens during the course of one night to a motorbike left unsecured in a public space in Ho Chi Minh City. They’re effective prompts for thinking about ways goods get valued and distributed in the global economy.
- The Guerrillas of Cu Chi (2012): Seated on one of two benches inside a small gallery space, you can view a 2-channel video installation. On one wall, you’ll see footage of Vietnamese fighters amid dense vegetation. On another, you’ll see tourists at a recreational shooting range in Vietnam – with the camera situated so viewers have the perspective of the target, rather than the shooter. The video lasts just over 20 minutes, giving viewers plenty of time to reflect on violence in the contexts of war and entertainment.
- The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014): Another pairing of video with art objects, this project includes a 20-minute video paired with objects seen in the film. The objects include Snake (a carved wood snake sculpture), Ox Head (a water buffalo skull with gold leafing and brass rings), and customized musical instruments. They’re best appreciated after you’ve watched the video, which explores the Vietnamese tradition of ancestor veneration that preceded the introduction of formal religions such as Buddhism and Catholicism. The video, which features a funeral band and transgender funeral performer named Sam, blends fictional elements with real moments.
- Two Bullets/The AK-47 vs The M16 (2015): See seven transparent, rectangular sculptures from a series of 21, each comprising fused AK-47 and M-16 projectiles encased in ballistics gel with metal stands and light fixtures. Nearby two pieces called Collateral Damage, which contain fragments of AK-47 and M16 projectiles, hang on the wall.
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- AK-47 – M16 The Film (2015): You’ll see a giant hand-painted poster for the film in one of the galleries, but the actual film is part of an exhibition-related film series.
For those who want to learn more about The Propeller Group, before or after seeing the show, there’s a sleek black exhibition catalogue called The Propeller Group available in the Phoenix Art Museum gift shop. Think of it as another riff on the collective’s foray into art and commerce.
"The Propeller Group" continues through Sunday, May 14, and is included with museum admission. Find more information about the exhibition and related programming on the Phoenix Art Museum website.
Correction: This post has been updated from its original version to include the correct name of the show's curator.