The Propeller Group: AK-47 vs. M16, The Film, 2016, video, 40 minutes; at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. 

In May, Barack Obama visited Vietnam. The visit brought international attention to the Southeast Asian nation’s economic rise and geopolitical importance, and also provided an ideal backdrop for this exhibition (which opened a few weeks later) spotlighting the video-centered art of the Propeller Group, a ten-year-old collective based in Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles that was featured in the 2015 Venice Biennale. 

The show brings together seven projects from the past five years, each consisting of a video and an assortment of props, artifacts, or other related visual objects. While maintaining a global outlook, the group—whose members are Phunam Thuc Ha, Matt Lucero, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen—produces work that is deeply rooted in the history, politics, and everyday life of Vietnam, especially its pervasive gun culture and the legacy of what is referred to in that country as the “Vietnam-American War.”

 The video Television Commercial for Communism (2011) is one of the best-known examples of the Propeller Group’s mildly subversive and sometimes irreverent approach. The group hired a leading advertising agency, TBWAVietnam, to create a fictional rebranding campaign for the country’s governmental system, and the results play on a monitor, alongside flags and an editioned banner reading, manifesto for the new communism. The slick, make-believe commercial represents a kind of surreal merger of two seemingly opposed systems (Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization just four years before this video was created) and offers a critique of both. On the one hand, such an advertisement embodies exactly the kind of marketing and consumer choice unthinkable under communism, and on the other it points to the dangers of that very commercialization—that even a governmental system can be packaged and sold.

As part of the multimedium project “AK-47 vs. M16” (2015–16), the collective offers a subversive take on a twenty-one-gun salute. They worked with ballistics engineers to fire bullets from the two infamous assault rifles into opposite ends of twenty-one translucent ballistics gel blocks (items used to test the impact of bullets on soft tissue). Five of the eerily beautiful blocks from the experiment—sort of sculptural versions of Harold Edgerton’s famed stop-action photo of an apple pierced by a bullet—are each presented in an elegant, tall-legged vitrine. That installation along with a documentary video and two panels from the related series “Collateral Damage” (2015), in which bullet residue spreads cosmiclike across black paper, form a compelling ensemble.  

The death theme touched on in “AK-47 vs. M16” is explored more deeply in The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014), a lush, meditative twenty-minute video produced for the international exhibition Prospect.3, in New Orleans. This piece highlights the surprising similarities between the storied funeral traditions in that historic American city and in Vietnam, two places where death is not an end to be mourned but a transition to be celebrated.