History of communism, culture in Vietnam come to life at new Phoenix Art Museum exhibition

(Brielle Ashford/DD)

The Phoenix Art Museum welcomed a new multimedia exhibition this week that highlights a uniquely modern take on Vietnamese art.

The Propeller Group, a team of artists based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, creates pieces that reflect the group’s background in both fine art and media production. Their new exhibition is rooted in the history of Vietnam and social commentary on the communist and capitalist influences that loom over the nation.

The group is made up of artists Phunam, Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen and was established in 2006, originally serving as an advertising agency and media production company. The collaborative trio now revels in presenting their immersive art to audiences and experimenting with various forms of communication such as documentary filmmaking, fiction narrative storytelling and the use of music video style aesthetics.

“It’s the spirit of working together that is so fundamental to who they are as an artistic group,” said Gilbert Vicario, The Selig Family Chief Curator at the museum. “Artists tend to be very selfish, very individually-minded people, but these guys have to collaborate and work together.”

While the artists grew up in the United States, they returned to Vietnam to investigate what has changed over the years, and their subsequent creations inspired Vicario to feature the Propellers in the museum.

“This idea of communism, which is what was happening in Vietnam at the time, and then the transition into capitalism — it’s the way they approach these things is what I love, and they do it with humor. It can be very tongue-in-cheek,” he said. “They say with communism and capitalism, capitalism is the lesser of these two evils. And through that they explore what aspects of communism could still possibly work today.”

Their multifaceted approach to art and Vietnamese history and culture is reflected in the exhibition, which opened last Saturday.

(Brielle Ashford/DD)
The Propeller Group experiments with various forms of communication such as documentary filmmaking, fiction narrative storytelling and the use of music video style aesthetics. (Brielle Ashford/DD)

“Usually exhibits in a museum are just on fashion, for example, or paintings from a specific artist, but in this one they mix film and the sculptures themselves, and that’s not very typical,” Ricky Tsang, an exhibition attendee, said. “It’s very abstract. When you see things in art, you usually want to automatically know what it is, but here you look at something and it’s different. It’s not what you would expect.”

One of the modern aspects is the 20-minute movie showcased in the exhibition called “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music.” In the film, viewers see the vibrant funeral procession traditions of South Vietnam in a way that artistically juxtaposes the living and the dead. The dramatic sequences mimic scenes from a music video, and reveal insights into Vietnamese culture.

“I love it,” attendee Jennifer Ellegood said of the film. “Especially the overall theme of propaganda. It’s made me wonder, does art imitate real life, or does real life imitate art? I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”

The exhibition highlights a culture and population that is not often represented in local art museums, and offers the community a new point of view about the small nation with which America shares a tumultuous history.

“I think the exhibit is really important because usually when it comes to Vietnamese art and culture, you get the traditional elements of it … a lot of people don’t have a modern view of what Vietnamese culture is actually like,” May Phan, a Phoenix resident and member of the Vietnamese community, said. “Vietnam is known for the rice paddies and the rice fields but we also have our own artistic culture as well.”

The exhibition is located in the Marshall, Hendler, and Anderman Galleries at the Phoenix Art Museum, and it will be on display through May 14.

Contact the reporter: Brielle.Ashford@asu.edu.