Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design Galleries are presenting two exhibitions from The Propeller Group, an artist collective based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Los Angeles, California.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Matt Lucero, who met while studying at California Institute for the Arts, formed the collective with the artist Phunam in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 2006. It specializes in cross-media presentations querying aspects of contemporary Vietnamese society.
The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (2014), a film on view through November 15, is an astonishing succession of surreal images, whose pacing and montage suggest a mash-up of Wim Wenders and Matthew Barney. To wit: A coffin is constructed with a carved serpent or dragon atop it and conveyed down a river. Another is carried to a cemetery on the shoulders of members of a brass band. Dancers and sword swallowers cavort in firelight. Allegorical figures appear in alleyway. Poetic voiceovers provide philosophical interludes. Jazz and traditional Vietnamese music alternate.
This poses a slight problem. We know enough about, say, football games and blimps to recognize without further help how the bizarre events in Barney’s Cremaster 1 relate to everyday reality in America. When Wenders’ Wings of Desire was released, the Berlin Wall and Peter Falk as Columbo were universally familiar contexts for a poetic fiction.We don’t have that type of grounding for The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music.
Although we know from the credits that The Propeller Group interacted with actual funeral ceremonies in southern Vietnam, we don’t know exactly how the film’s surreality relates to Vietnamese reality. A bit of independent web searching turns up a 2004 NPR story that reveals that the title of the film is a Vietnamese proverb based on the tradition of hiring bands to perform “happy music” in funeral processions after “sad music” at the obsequies.
It helps to be told that this is specifically a film about funeral customs that are similar across the global south (the film stunned audiences at Prospect.3 in New Orleans, presumably in part because of similarities to local funeral customs), and that some of it is based on actual funerals. The film captures our attention and, ironically, avoids exoticism in a way that a documentary about funerary customs in Vietnam might not. But once our curiosity has been roused, there’s no way to satisfy it because the gallery provides no written context whatsoever.
The same problem obtains with Body Bouquet, the adjacent exhibition of six Vietnamese artists curated by Tuan Andrew Nguyen, which runs through November 1. We are informed that this diverse collection of styles and images represents a trend to use portrayals of the body as oblique critiques of current political and social conditions, but are given no more information. While we might assume that the drawings of processes in a slaughterhouse, which parallel such surrealist strategies of rearranging body parts, are symbolic, it is difficult to get the message unless one knows the political situation to which it refers.
This is a frequent problem in exhibitions of international art: Audiences from the originating country will understand its implications in ways that foreign audiences can’t. A museum or gallery, especially at a teaching institution, have a responsibility to provide context that would afford its patrons a more substantive engagement with the art it shows.
At least we can enjoy the art in formalist terms, as compelling but mysterious images.