Seeking to illuminate the West's blind spot for Southeast Asia, the Ho Chi Minh City art collective-cum-advertising company The Propeller Group produces ambitious multimedia projects through artifacts, videos, and sculptural works.
Vietnamese-born artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam, along with Southern California native Matt Lucero, want their work to change everything you think about Vietnam. "I think the perception [of Vietnam and Southeast Asia] of the West, and most the perception of people in the US, have kind of come to a standstill after the American war,” Nguyen says during a press preview of the group's self-titled first exhibition stateside, at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
“There was so much media that was created during the war, that after the war was over and after the US withdrew, the public's image of Vietnam kind of froze. So I think a lot of our work talks about that, actually, about how that image of Vietnam is kind of played out through media and through Hollywood,” he continues.
Beyond the helicopters and protest rock, Vietnam today is a modern, complex country at a crucial junction with decades of colonialism and conflict still shaping its future. Tensions between communism and the burgeoning global capitalist markets—including a recently lifted arms embargo—as well as a rapidly developing economy, coupled with serious human rights abuses, are the marks of a nation with growing pains. “Right now Vietnam is on the brink of major change,” Nguyen explains.
Take, for example, their exploration of East versus West: the collective attempts to tell a storythrough a sculptural installation with an M16 and AK-47, standard weapons of the West and "the rest." Having the two weapons fired directly at each other through ballistics gel, the artists created both a beautiful, violent slow-motion film, and a series of sculptures featuring explosions frozen in time as kinetic memories. AK47 – The M16 The Film, a feature-length supercut of the weapons, rounds out the study and chronicles what show organizer and MCA curator Naomi Beckwith calls, “weapons in our visual cultural war,” one wherein the AK serves as a visual shorthand for "the bad guys."
The Propeller Group delves into deep issues with surprising approachability, something that can be credited to their experiences in the commercial realm. Free of haughty abstraction, they seek to make art that is both powerful and easy to grasp. “I think there is a certain kind of language and a delivery that commercial work, like advertising or the typical Hollywood narrative, allows in terms of getting a message across, that the art world doesn't,” Nguyen says.
The Propeller Group runs through November 13 at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.