Your fast passport to Vietnam comes courtesy of an artist collective based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – The Propeller Group.
Now and until November 13, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA) exhibits The Propeller Group’s videos, objects, photos, and sculpture. You burrow into the soul of Vietnam. Indeed, even if you too have logged several months touring Vietnam, you will meet Vietnam in a way you never had before.
Vietnam War Spectacle
First, for any American touring Vietnam, the elephant in the room is always the long protracted Vietnamese War. If you or someone you are traveling with is a man of a certain age, many you meet in Vietnam are likely thinking that you are on what is called “an apology tour”. Tourist ranks and expat enclaves are thick with Vietnam Vets. Some Vets reportedly walk up to Vietnamese strangers to say they are sorry. You infer by the telling that it’s quite the spectacle.
Vietnamese attitudes to Americans run the gamut. In Ho Chi Minh City you may meet someone who is incensed if you hadn’t fought in the war. The many artisans disabled by napalm and the like--who seem strategically on display selling trinkets and lacquerware near war memorials--will look in your eyes not with anger or resentment. Rather, they seem to hunger for signs of whether or not you are a sale.
When you get to Hanoi, you are more likely to meet college students in this disproportionately young nation, for which the war is more a history lesson. They seem hungrier to hang out with you for American English lessons on-the-cheap. They hope this will help them get a better job after graduation. Again and again, you the American come to realize that few in Vietnam hold much against you. After all, they won, America lost.
Cu Chi Tunnels Tour
The Propeller Group puts this American anxiety and the once unimaginable friendship between Vietnam and the USA in its gun sights, quite literally.
Imagine taking a tour bus from Ho Chi Minh City, mainly packed with Americans, to a war memorial that has preserved the ingenious tunnel systems built by the Vietnamese guerrillas. These tunnels have been enlarged for Westerner-sized tourists. You still have to crouch though – a lot. You still have to conquer claustrophobia. You can’t help but admire and marvel at these and similar tunnel systems throughout the country. Sometimes entire villages had lived underground in them for much of the war.
Before you even hit the tunnels, you see a grainy black and white film telling the story of the war in general, and these tunnels in specific. It tells the story of David and Goliath, Vietnam War style. Its low production value somehow gives it even more emotional wallop.
Then you move to the tunnels—going on and on and on. Toward the conclusion, your Vietnamese guide will show you the ingenious animal traps that were used to gore unsuspecting GIs venturing near the tunnel system. It’s so inventive! But it’s also so brutal. You flinch in your American skin. It doesn’t matter a whit if you had always been a fervent war protester.
Firing Range Target
At the conclusion of your Cu Chi tunnel tour, you are invited to go to a firing range and shoot out your anxieties. This reviewer declined to even look at that part of the spectacle. It always seemed a miracle that some Vet with PTSD wouldn’t just go ballistic and turn the gun around and have a meltdown rampage.
The Propeller Group takes you there. They position you as the target for the guns. That grainy black and white film about the resourceful and valiant Vietnamese guerrillas is juxtaposed with footage of tourists taking turns shooting, doing photo shoots of each other shooting. They are having a good old time on holiday.(Note: This reviewer was relieved to see that the guns were fixed in place, such that that the imagined PSTD driven shooting rampage really can’t happen.)
The Propeller Group seems to be asking us to take in all the madness of then and now.
Even if your thoughts on the war were formed long ago, they grab your head and compel you to look again—this time not blinking.
The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music
Then you journey into the collision of ancient Vietnamese beliefs in reincarnation with their fast-globalizing culture of today in The Propeller Group’s video installation called “The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music”.
You too may want to watch this video not once, but again and again. Visually, it startles with vivid colors and tapestries. Its dreamlike narrative weaves a transgender urban man reborn as a rural woman, a New Orleans style jazz band moving in and out of traditional Vietnamese funeral rites, and more.
Madison Avenue Meets Mao and Ho Chi Minh
With no small amount of irony, The Propeller Group reflects on communism as perhaps just marketing-challenged. They give us a high production value infomercial that would make any political candidate hire them immediately.
For those who have visited Hanoi and remember the recurring chimes announcing the next performance of the water puppet show, the musical motif of this film, which both haunts and enchants, will somehow feel so very Vietnamese familiar.
It will make you smile. It will make you think.
The entire exhibit of The Propeller Group will do same.
Now through November 13, 2016.
Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago
Plan Your Visit:
Visit the MCA website for hours, ticket prices and more.
Note: The Propeller Group exhibit travels to Phoenix Art Museum, February 15 to May 14, 2017, and then to Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, June 3 – October 7, 2017
All photos of the MCA exhibit and of The Propeller Group are courtesy of The Propeller Group.
Vietnam War memorial photos: Peter Kachergis