The Propeller Group

James Cohan – Lower East Side, New York

The New York debut of the Propeller Group’s twenty-minute video The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (2014), that was commissioned for the 2014 New Orleans Biennial, ‘Prospect.3: Notes for Now’, is best summed up by the biennial’s curator Franklin Sirmans’s description of the works as ‘how we see ourselves through others’. On entering James Cohan Gallery’s Lower East Side space, we are accosted by astounding images of magic, rituals, and funerary rights from South Vietnam. Composed by the Group’s three members, Phunam Thuc Ha, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Matt Lucero, who are based between Vietnam and Los Angeles, the images fit a Western conception of exoticism while exemplifying the significance of identity in the southern hemisphere, the regions that post-colonialists refer to as the Global South.

The Propeller Group’s montage begins through the narrow back alleys of colourful, closely built homes. Our initial encounter with the central androgynous figure, who later dies in a street fight, cuts quickly to various scenes, from a funeral dirge played by a brass band that walks through a swamp, to rituals of ceremonial warriors that perform before an altar, images of a coffin decorated with a carved wooden snake, and dreamy pithy Bollywood-type songs. Although the video is set in Saigon, the lush landscape, filled with swamps, brings to mind areas from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and other countries in the region. The untouched quality of the tropical hinterland, that was popularised following the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s trips to the Amazon in the 1940s, is generally raw and appealing. However, it generates deeper connections with countries in and around the region where people live in closely constructed structures and engage in semi-rural lives steeped in tradition and ritual.

Partly documentary, partly staged, exotic scenes of a man thrusting green vine snakes through his nostrils, fire-eaters, and performers taking on dangerous acts, evoke feelings of awe and repulsion, while demonstrating their ‘difference’. Yet the tradition of performance and the custom of engaging in unfathomable feats are endemic to the larger regions of South and Southeast Asia. While rituals and traditions vary from region to region, what permeates the snake charmers dance with a cobra, or a performer pushing a dagger through his eye sockets, is the underlying philosophy of struggle, endurance, and perfection. Especially in semi-developed areas where the seepage of modernity and tradition co-exist, life-threatening performances and rituals become intermingled in the process of appeasing the gods. Interspersed with these scenes of daredevils, and the soothing music from the band that alternates between Vietnamese funerary music and jazz, the androgynous figure reappears in a female form and sings songs of rebirth and the passage of life that reflects Buddhist philosophy. 

 But the elemental theme of this enigmatic, mesmerising video replicates Levi-Strauss’s search for the basic pattern of thought in human activity. When asked about the music and rituals in the video that bear resemblance to some practices in New Orleans where the work was first shown, artists from the group explained the commonality of actions through the theory of quantum physics. According to the New Orleans Art Insider, they explained that ‘some things can become “entangled” at the particle level and resemble other things across space and time’. The Propeller Group’s marvelous commingling of modernity with local culture, and the use of western and indigenous music, like the Albanian video artist Anri Sala, to engage with the history of a place, enables its universal appeal.

The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music generates the same kind of force one sees in the sculpture and video on display in the back room of the gallery. Originally conceived for the 56th Venice Biennale, AK47 vs. M16 (2015) is a static gelatinous sculpture that captures the collision of bullets from two weapons—one from Russia and the other made in America—that were used during the Vietnam War. The force of the collision causes a gelatinous movement that can be seen in the accompanying video. Its reverberation is perhaps no different from the collision of modernity and tradition, the past and the present, and the old and the new in the video, all of which sustains our interest in human actions as it amplifies the customs of less recognised cultures from the Global South.

The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014. Still. Single channel projection, 25:15mins.

The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs. M16, 2015. Fragments of AK-47 and M16 bullets, ballistics gel, custom vitrine and digital video, 7 1/8 x 16 7/8 x 7 1/4ins. 

The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014. Still. Single channel projection, 25:15mins.