Vietnamese Artists Explore Impact of Politics, Ideologies on Life, Death

A New Orleanslike musical funeral procession with a band set in Vietnam and a transgender fire-eater are all a part of a multimedia traveling exhibit by a Ho Chi Minh City-based artist collective called The Propeller Group.

The exhibit is showing at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.

Vietnamese-American Brittany Trinh has seen the exhibit more than once. The film titled, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, is Trinh’s favorite piece in the exhibit.

“First it was the music and then the way that it was being filmed, and I just felt like I was a part of it.” Trinh said, “I just felt really connected to it in a strange way.”

The Propeller Group’s origins

Founded in 2006, three artists make up the core of The Propeller Group: Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phu Nam Thuc Ha, and Matt Lucero. All have multicultural backgrounds.

Two of these founders were born in Vietnam and had to leave the country with their families because of the Vietnam War. Lucero is Native American with Spanish roots. All three grew up and were educated in countries including the United States and Singapore before going to Vietnam to live and work as artists.

“It was the end of the Vietnam War, and then the Cold War occupied so much of our kind of upbringing until, you know the early ’90s. And so that had always kind of affected how we thought and become something that haunted us,” Nguyen said.

These artists have backgrounds in filmmaking, but they found shooting video in public in Communist Vietnam was difficult, and their cameras were almost confiscated. To work around this, they formed an advertising firm that allowed them more freedom to shoot video in public.

“You’ll see propaganda and really slick advertising, and that was the space that Vietnam was in, and that was the space the Propeller Group came out of, looking at those kind of dichotomies and those collisions and ideologies,” Nguyen said.

“We were doing the advertising, the commercial work by day, and by night we were kind of developing our own artistic conceptual practice,” he said.

US exhibit

While the group rarely is allowed to show its work in Vietnam because of censorship, there is a traveling exhibit of its work showing in the United States. Themes of life and death can be seen in the pieces of multimedia works of art.

One film in the exhibit looks at the Vietnamese rituals surrounding funerals, which includes a transgender fire-eater.

“It’s a moment for them to perform and to express themselves without being stopped by the police. Then it becomes a moment of resistance in public as well, that’s one thing that kind of drew us to looking at these rituals and these traditions,” Nguyen said. “It’s (rituals) something that’s always in flux, and I think part of that comes from the many, many kinds of wars that Vietnam has been engaged in over the last few centuries,” he said.

How people die and live as a result of politics and ideologies and the impact of globalism also are themes seen in a time-lapse video of what happens when a motorcycle called the Honda Dream is left outside overnight in Vietnam. The motorcycle was stripped bare.

“So this motorbike that was once a symbol of the future and of economic mobility now is a symbol for something else. The Honda Dream becomes this physical manifestation of how ideas of capital and communism have kind of shifted over the last 10, 15, 20 years in a communist society,” Nguyen said.

Exhibit well received

The exhibit’s Houston curator says the city’s Vietnamese American community has been especially receptive to this exhibit.

“Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. It’s also one of the cities that has one of the largest populations of Vietnamese. This exhibition will resonate and will bring forth questions and will open conversations about the identity of Vietnamese Americans,” said Javier Sanchez Martinez, Blaffer Art Museum’s Curatorial Fellow.

Nguyen says he hopes the exhibit will inspire the audience to re-examine how they think about history and the different narratives that affect their current way of thought.

The exhibit is organized by Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston’s Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Phoenix Art Museum.

The Propeller Group’s exhibit will travel next to the San Jose Museum of Art.