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Collective Art: The Propeller Group at Blaffer Art Museum

Collective Art: The Propeller Group at Blaffer Art Museum

The Propeller Group
Still from The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014
Single-channel film (3840 x 2160, 25fps, color, 5.1 surround sound)
20 minutes
© The Propeller Group
Courtesy of The Propeller Group and James Cohan, New York.

Installation view, The Propeller Group, Blaffer Art Museum
June 3-September 30, 2017
Photo: Peter Molick, © Blaffer Art Museum.

There’s something deceptive about the exhibition on view at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. Installed through Sept. 30, The Propeller Group blurs the line between art and media. The Propeller Group, a trans-pacific collective based in Los Angeles and Vietnam, utilizes the tools and strategies of advertising and marketing—branding, new media, applications—to examine the culture and history of Vietnam as well as its role as a growing capitalist market.

The multi-part projects are dispersed throughout the two-story museum, and while some rooms may feel sparse, they sit heavy with the weight of questions the members of the collective seem to be asking themselves. Fade In is a reenactment of an incident when a series of shipments were confiscated by the Vietnamese government because they contained guns made of wood, props from a collaboration with Dutch artists. The misunderstanding grows from clarification about these props to a larger conversation about their cultural significance and the customs officer’s insistence that it would be wiser to use something more authentic to the country and its people. As the video plays, men are moving carvings of jackfruit wood, a truck pulls in front of the man on the phone, and as the truck pulls away and his conversation with the officer comes to an end, he enters the building—fade to black.

Across the room, jackfruit wood carvings are arranged on the facade of a house. There are three flagpoles and the center flag displays text that describes the new communism and the other two flags bear the new symbol of communism—a malformed circle comprised of overlapping semi-circles. They face a large movie poster for AK-47 vs. M16, a reference to a larger installation upstairs with a series of ballistic gel blocks into which an AK-47 and M16 were fired at one another—an eerie test of strength.

Installation view, The Propeller Group, Blaffer Art Museum
June 3-September 30, 2017
Photo: Peter Molick, © Blaffer Art Museum.

At the cross-section of these works lies the multifaceted political nature of The Propeller Group. While politics isn’t necessarily the sole focus, much of their work pulls at what seems mundane or mainstream to reveal the geopolitical histories at play in the intermingling of time, space, trade, commerce, and tourism.

Moving throughout the museum, there’s no way to avoid the sound of The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music, a video piece with its own specially constructed room and a lively, haunting soundtrack that ignores the constrictions of space. The video follows the multi-day funeral rites observed on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Propeller Group builds from this fantastic procession a bizarre hallucination that travels from city to graveyard, across streets and rivers. The liveliness of the music and performers, ranging from snake charmers to dancers to people who swallow swords and fire, parallels a Louisianan second line, but the collective’s touch turns the passage from life to death into a cyclical struggle for transitional fluidity.

The second story of Blaffer is dedicated to explorations of tourism, trade, and war. At the top of the staircase is an entrance to a small room. Upon entering, we are placed in front of a firing squad of tourists with a propaganda documentary at our backs. The audio and subtitles are from a documentary, produced during the Vietnam War, and detail the history of the Củ Chi  tunnels, from which guerrillas were able to fend off American forces. Used during the war as armories, sleeping quarters, kitchens, and hospitals, these tunnels are now a memorial and tourist attraction. The video of the tourists is a slow pan across the gun range, showing groups of tourists as they either pose or take aim—some with guns, others with cameras. The two may be functionally different, but both have the ability to change and alter histories.

Installation view, The Propeller Group, Blaffer Art Museum
June 3-September 30, 2017
Photo: Peter Molick, © Blaffer Art Museum.

The Propeller Group has found an innovative way to address issues that, while referencing a specific culture, can be drawn out and broadened, answering questions with more questions. Their open-ended approach to political art might leave you yearning for something more direct, but if you leave this exhibition and find yourself wondering days later about the ramifications of tourism on a country’s history or the importance of authenticity in representation, the artists have done their job.

—MICHAEL MCFADDEN