Is It an Art Collective or a Vietnamese Ad Agency? Yes and Yes

The Propeller Group is an artists’ collective that offers a sly commentary on contemporary Vietnam. From left, Phunam, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Matt Lucero.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — In 1978, when he was 2 years old, Tuan Andrew Nguyen was on a plane to the United States. He and his parents were “boat people,” postwar refugees from Communist Vietnam. They were lucky: After a week at sea in a small, open craft, they made landfall on Bidong Island, a speck of land that would soon become the world’s largest refugee camp. Then an American church group offered to resettle them in Oklahoma. When Tuan started crying somewhere over the Pacific, a flight attendant gave him a Dennis the Menace comic book. It’s his earliest memory.

Today, at 41, Mr. Nguyen is living in the city his parents fled, one of eight million souls careening around its overheated streets on motor scooters. He is a Viet Kieu, an overseas Vietnamese, who came back with alien influences like hip-hop, graffiti art and comics. He is also a member of the Propeller Group, an artists’ collective that offers a sly commentary on contemporary Vietnam through works like “Television Commercial for Communism,” a 60-second spot that purports to repackage the ideology of Marx and Lenin as a sleek, egalitarian, consumer-friendly lifestyle. It comes with a manifesto, of course, but also with a 24-page booklet of “brand guidelines.” The logo for the new Communism “has been carefully crafted to be fair to every letterform,” the guidelines specify in deadpan fashion. “Equal spacing is important.”

The mock rebranding campaign, produced with the Ho Chi Minh City office of the global advertising agency TBWA, is currently featured in the Propeller Group’s first major museum retrospective, at the San Jose Museum of Art in San Jose, Calif., through March 25. The exhibition originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and traveled to Houston and Phoenix without incident. But in coming to San Jose, it dropped the Propeller Group — which in addition to Mr. Nguyen includes another Viet Kieu, Phunam Thuc Ha, and an American, Matt Lucero — into a large and politically contentious Vietnamese enclave.

“They’re kind of paranoid about what’s coming out of Vietnam currently,” Mr. Nguyen said. Lauren Dickens, the museum curator who brought the show to San Jose, put it more bluntly: “There’s a suspicion that he’s actually a Communist because he works under a Communist government.”

Art collective notwithstanding, Mr. Nguyen is no Communist, and he came to San Jose and met with community leaders to make the point. But he’s also not one to shun controversy, at least in America. Vietnam, where all public exhibitions must be approved by a government agency, is another matter.

“A lot of topics most artists deal with, we can’t touch,” Mr. Nguyen said over cold drinks at Ho Chi Minh City’s Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, a sprawling gallery-restaurant-café built largely from shipping containers. In the main gallery was his most recent solo show, “Empty Forest,” filled with spirit representations of rhinos and other beasts that have been driven to extinction by the region’s lust for supposed medicinal potions. “No politics, no religion, no sex, no violence and — what’s the fifth one?”

Immigration, perhaps? No, that’s more a problem in the United States.

Accompanying the show in San Jose is an outdoor mural, produced by the Los Angeles-based artist El Mac in collaboration with the Propeller Group, of Sophie Cruz, the little girl who has become an unofficial voice for immigration reform. In 2015, when she was 5, Sophie went to Washington and stopped Pope Francis’s motorcade to deliver a plea for her parents, illegal immigrants from Mexico. The mural is scheduled to be dedicated on March 24. Mr. Nguyen plans to be there with his Vietnamese wife and their infant daughter.

Issues of identity, of borders and belonging, are central to Mr. Nguyen personally and to the Propeller Group collectively. Are they really Vietnamese? Are they really even artists? Mr. Nguyen, whose parents fled because his father faced “re-education” as a former South Vietnamese army draftee, had to fight off bullies in Oklahoma and Texas before his parents finally settled in Irvine, Calif. Phunam, as he prefers to be known, is the son of a cameraman for CBS News correspondent Morley Safer during the Vietnam War. He grew up in Singapore but started going back to Vietnam in 1990 and earned a degree in oil painting restoration in Hanoi. Mr. Lucero grew up in Southern California, the son of a United States Army mechanic who had fought in Vietnam, manning a machine gun on a helicopter as it performed troop insertions and medevacs. He and Mr. Nguyen became close friends after discovering a shared interest in hip-hop music and graffiti art as students at the California Institute of the Arts. In 2009, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City and joined the Propeller Group.

The collective had gotten started a few years earlier, with Mr. Nguyen and Phunam supporting their artwork by producing local television spots and splashy Vietnamese music videos. Looking for a name, they kept seeing the phrase “propeller group” popping up in Google — for a PR agency, an advertising firm, a production company — so they adopted it. But some people found this confusing. Were they, as Mr. Nguyen wrote in the museum show’s catalog, “an art collective pretending to be an advertising company, or an advertising company pretending to be an art collective?” To which he replied, “Yes and yes please.”

So, good luck trying to get a straight answer out of them. “They’re interested in existing in a state of paradox,” said Naomi Beckwith, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago who helped organize the exhibition that’s now in San Jose.

It’s a state that reflects the situation in Vietnam in general and Ho Chi Minh City in particular — a Communist country mauled by decades of war that’s now exploding with capitalist consumerism; a watery landscape where solid ground can be an iffy proposition; a city of some 8.4 million where the line between public space and private space becomes blurred. This is why, when Ms. Beckwith and Claudia Schmuckli — then the director of the University of Houston’s art museum, now a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — came here to plan the Propeller Group exhibition, its members insisted they first explore the city and the vast Mekong Delta that flanks it.

The word Mr. Nguyen uses to describe the group’s stance is “liminal”: at the threshold, one foot on either side. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music,” a 20-minute film they made for the 2014 Prospect New Orleans art biennial. It shows a dreamscape version of the rich and oddly festive funerary traditions of southern Vietnam. Funerals may be private in other parts of the world, but here they’re held on the street, a wild medley of sword-swallowers, fire-breathers, snake charmers, kung fu dancers, marching bands and professional mourners that can go on for days. Shown in New Orleans, the film suggested a shared identity with the spirited funerary celebrations of the Mississippi River Delta. “That collapsing of distance, cultural and geographical, was really powerful,” said Ms. Schmuckli, who has acquired the film for the Fine Arts Museums. (It goes on view there April 2.)

The film is also about fluidity. Good and evil spirits battle for the soul of the departed. A transgender street performer dances in a circle of flame. By the end of the film, the band is marching into the water, white uniforms and all. “It’s almost a metaphor for reincarnation,” Mr. Lucero said.

Reincarnation is perhaps the ultimate form of liminality,so it shouldn’t be surprising that the members of the Propeller Group are fascinated by it. Mr. Lucero was born just three days after Mr. Nguyen in April 1976. The two have long joked that in a former life they met on the battlefield in the final days of the Vietnam War and killed one another, only to be reincarnated in their present forms.

If individual members of the Propeller Group could die and be reborn, why not the collective itself? That is the message they’re sending out now. The exhibition catalog opens with “An Obituary for The Propeller Group” that says the collective “transitioned to reincarnation” just before the show opened in Chicago. Since then, the three have largely gone their own ways. Phunam shot a Vietnamese film that opened in November, and he has others in the works. Mr. Lucero and his Vietnamese-born wife started a company in Ho Chi Minh City that makes finishes for furniture. “I haven’t completely given up on art,” Mr. Lucero said. “But it’s very, very stressful to me to do the kind of traveling you need to do to maintain this presence in the art world.”

Mr. Nguyen is continuing as an artist. Though the Propeller Group has rarely shown in Vietnam, he has long been an influential figure here, thanks largely to an art center he co-founded in 2007. Called Sàn Art (“sàn” means “platform”), it offered critical resources to aspiring artists. But it all but shut down in 2016, chiefly because of government pressure.

Mr. Nguyen went back to Bidong Island to make a film about the now-abandoned refugee camp. He was drawn by news reports that a monument erected by former refugees had been dismantled under pressure from the Hanoi government. Called “The Island” and set in a post-nuclear future, the film was a highlight of the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York.

And the Propeller Group? The art world expects the name “to be attached to specific members,” he said. “But what if we completely challenged that?” What if the collective simply carried on with new members? They are leaving all options open. Which raises the question: what is the Propeller Group anyway — three guys who constitute an art collective, or an art collective that used to be made up of three guys?

Yes and yes please.

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