In the mid-2000s, when the artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam Thuc Ha, and Matt Lucero came together in Vietnam, they decided to register as an ad agency—to make art, not ads.
It was a workaround. They wanted to shoot a documentary on Vietnam’s first graffiti artists, who were just starting to make their mark on the country’s highly restricted public space. And the government—still committed to censorship—was making it difficult for the trio, threatening to confiscate their equipment. Registering as an ad agency, The Propeller Group, gave them license to shoot in public.
The workaround worked. But it became more than logistical. “It was part frustration and part unconscious conceptual moment,” Nguyen told me recently. “We used to call it a fake advertising company because we really didn’t know what we were doing. It was important for us to get swallowed up and digested by that big media machine, you know? To figure out what it’s all about and deal with it.”
On April 22, “New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations” opens at Mia, combining the trio’s 2014 film The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music with an installation of Buddhist statues, funerary objects, images of snakes, and other artworks from Mia’s collection. The artists also designed some objects, commissioning a stone carver in Vietnam, for instance, to make new hands for statues at Mia that are missing their own limbs—hand gestures being central to the identity of Buddhist deities. (The group will talk about the work with Mia Curator Yasufumi Nakamori on April 22 in Pillsbury Auditorium.)
The objects reflect the film’s focus on funeral rituals in Vietnam, which it’s safe to say are like nothing you’ve seen in Minnesota. In the tightly packed neighborhoods, funerals spill from homes into streets, with tents careening out for rain cover, blurring public and private space. “People can join in and celebrate,” Nguyen says, “and that’s where a lot of the magic happens.”
Brass bands play all night, people dance, and professional mourners are paid to weep ecstatically—and the rituals carry on for days. Finally, the casket is carried from the house to an above-ground cemetery. The customs are not unlike those of traditional New Orleans funerals, and it’s no coincidence that the film premiered there in 2014.
But Vietnam goes a few steps further, into a kind of magical space that’s only found at funerals—in death, a state removed from regular life, the norms of Vietnamese society can be broken. Performers from the transgender and transvestite communities, for instance, are welcomed at funerals to entertain with singing, stripping, fire-breathing, and other acts. “It’s one of the only spaces where they can perform and just be,” Nguyen says. “It becomes a space of resistance for those communities.”
There is also, as Nguyen puts it, “a lot of death-defying stuff, like getting run over by a motorcycle.” Performers might place a motor bike on their head, put a kid from the audience on the bike, and walk around. They might swallow swords, or put a snake through their nostrils. “It’s interesting, these acts of death defiance in the context of death,” Nguyen says. It’s also thrilling.
The film, which blends footage of real funerals with performances filmed in a studio, has the feel of a music video—a form The Propeller Group are very comfortable with. In the trio’s advertising days, they made a lot of music videos for Vietnamese pop stars. (“Those were good times,” Nguyen muses.) They didn’t want to make a straight documentary, “a film that exoticized this culture” with a vicarious point of view. Taking the music video approach instead put The Propeller Group on the inside, directing the action, not merely filming it.
In any case, the film crew couldn’t capture some of the performances in real life—funerals were too crowded, the crowds too excited. Death was too enlivening. The studio workaround allowed the artists to slow down, to focus on aesthetics, and—in the spirit of Vietnamese funerals—make something about death that is larger than life.
Top image: A still from The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music.