Relationship Today Between Vietnam, U.S. at Heart of Propeller Group Show

Nations once at war often become partners in times of peace who share complicated connections. For three artists who came from either side of the Vietnam War, those connections are the subject of work in sculpture, video, installation and even advertising.   

Here's a look at the work of The Propeller Group.

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The Propeller Group. "The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music," 2014. (Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art)The Propeller Group. "The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music," 2014. (Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art)


Phil Ponce: For three artists who work together in Ho Chi Minh City, this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a very big deal.   

Tuan Nguyen, artist, Propeller Group: We’ve never had a show of this scale. We’re actually just wrapping our minds around it right now.

Tuan NguyenTuan Nguyen

Naomi Beckwith, MCA curator: The Propeller Group is the first group of artists that we’re working with who live and work in Asia.

Ponce: The heart of their work is the relationship between Vietnam and the United States today. It was more than 40 years ago when American troops left South Vietnam and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Communists.

Phunam, artist, Propeller Group: Vietnam today is sort of the most capitalistic communist country.

Nguyen: Vietnam is one of the biggest manufacturing countries in the world.

Ponce: The Propeller Group shares a heritage of conflict that shapes their artistic interests.

Nguyen: I was born in Vietnam – 1976. My family escaped on a boat from Vietnam and so we were known as what people call the “boat people.”

Matt Lucero: My father was in the Vietnam War – he was there in ‘67 and ‘68 in the Army.


Phunam: I was born in 1974 in Saigon and it was just about two weeks before the fall of Saigon that my father managed to get us out of the country.

Beckwith: I think a lot of visitors will be really enamored of the gel block project, also known as “AK-47 vs M16.”

Nguyen: These objects are made by shooting an AK-47 and an M16 at each other and forming these potential collisions.

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Nguyen: Early in the beginning we thought we’d place the two guns in a gallery, cover the whole setup in a glass-proof vitrine and just have them fire at each other once a day at high noon and create objects once a day for 21 days and that proved of course impossible.

And then we made a movie called the “AK-47 vs. the M16, The Film.”

Beckwith: This film follows the saga of the two guns used in the Vietnam-American War and the two guns that were on either side of the Cold War throughout history.

Naomi BeckwithNaomi Beckwith

Nguyen: Kind of in the vein of like Superman vs. Batman but more serious.

Ponce: The feature-length movie is made up of clips from films that show the two guns, from Hollywood movies to gun sales videos.

A less directly violent confrontation between Vietnam and the U.S. is explored in their piece “Television Commercial for Communism.” The Propeller Group hired an advertising agency to develop a branding strategy for communism. 

Nguyen: They’re famous for actually doing the big Apple 1984 commercial, so we approached them as if we were the last five remaining communist countries in the world and we needed a rebrand.

Ponce: The logo of the new communism is made up of smiles of different colors arranged in a circle. 

Beckwith: The Propellers have a wonderful video aesthetic and that’s the most salient thing that one will see in the exhibition.

Ponce: In “The Guerrillas of Cu Ciu,” the camera is aimed at tourists shooting toward a target. Cu Cui was the site of a North Vietnamese guerrilla base in South Vietnam linked to a series of tunnels. The former guerilla base is now an historical attraction.

Nguyen: It lies somewhere between an amusement park and like a performance piece or something.

Ponce: The Propeller’s most visually striking film is “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music.”

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music - Trailer from TPG on Vimeo.

Beckwith: It’s a visionary journey through southern Vietnam and it really is about funerary practices in that region. It also turns out that funerals in southern Vietnam look very close to funeral practices in the southern Louisiana delta region.

Phunam: A lot of people actually thought that we shot it in New Orleans.

Ponce: For MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, the show serves a greater good.

Beckwith: It’s a way of not letting Vietnam look exotic, historic, or out of place in the world that we live in now.

The Propeller Group will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art through Nov. 13. Screenings of "AK-47 vs. the M16, The Film" take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays through Sept. 6 at the museum's Edlis Neeson Theater.

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