Interviews

On Combing a Museum’s Collection for Objects that Deal with Death

A member of the Propeller Group discusses using the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s collection as a backdrop for a film about funerary traditions.

New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations, installation view (courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art)

MINNEAPOLIS — In 2014, Ho Chi Minh–based artist collective the Propeller Group took Prospect New Orleans by storm with their 20-minute film, “The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music,” a gorgeously shot exploration of Vietnam’s spectacular funerary processions, which draws on traditional Southeast Asian practices as well as the cultural influence of jazz. Now, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), the group is showing their film in a new context, amid sacred and ritualistic masks and figures culled from the museum’s Asian, African, classical, and Native American collections, as well as original objects the Propeller Group created for the show. Curated by Mia’s Yasufumi Nakamori, head of the Department of Photography and New Media, New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations, offers a unique collaboration between artists and ancient objects.

New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations, installation view (courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art)

One of the Propeller Group members, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, was on-hand for the opening of the Mia show in April. Nguyen, who came to the United States as a refugee as a child, ended up in California for high school and went on to attend the University of California, Irvine, and then Cal Arts for graduate school. There he met Matt Lucero, and together the two artists, along with Phunam Thuc Ha, formed their collective in Vietnam, under the auspices of an advertising agency, in order to skirt the country’s censorship. I sat down with Nguyen to discuss the process of creating the Reincarnations installation.

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Sheila Regan: What was it like to move outside of the cultural practice of funerals to a more global exploration of how different cultures say goodbye to their dead?

Tuan Andrew Nguyen

Tuan Andrew Nguyen: I think the film doesn’t just look at Vietnam, it looks at the connections between Vietnam and other places. It doesn’t occur visually within the film, but I think the conceptual inclination when we got the chance to show a film in New Orleans was to make those links. It was really important for us to premiere this film outside of Vietnam in New Orleans, because the connections to the New Orleans second-line jazz funeral processions were so strong that a lot of people who saw the film in New Orleans thought we had shot it there.

SR: When you started going through Mia’s collection, what were you looking for?

The Propeller Group, “We Devour our Worst Demons to Find our Greatest Fears” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic, unless noted)

TAN: We were looking for things that were used in funerary rituals, [things] that related to death and how people dealt with death in different cultures throughout time. We were really interested in masks, because the mask is kind of a thing that’s used in the film. There’s a mask of a water buffalo head that one of the main characters dons. Snakes were a really strong image in the film, and we found all these instances of snakes that had a relationship to death rituals and funerals. Also deity figures, figures of Buddhas and stuff.

SR: Can you talk about some of the objects you made for the exhibition?

TAN: The ring of fire we made to kind of reference back, visually and conceptually, to some of the scenes in the film. There’s this scene where as Sam, the transgender character, performs, she has this ring of fire around her and she dances in it. It’s really beautiful, it’s dangerous, it’s death-defying. So we found this marble Bodhisattva in the collection, and we thought it would be kind of amazing to make a visual tie-back to the film. [The Bodhisattva statue] is missing arms, so we gave her arms, to tie into the idea of incarnation. [We also made] hands for the missing arms of the Ghandara Buddha.

Unknown artist, Buddha, 3rd century, Pakistan, and The Propellor Group, “Letting Go While Holding On” (2017)

We’ve worked with carvers a lot in the past. We were really interested in this idea of the real and the not-real, the authentic and the fake. We asked one of our stone carvers we’ve worked with, based on images of the Ghandara and based on his knowledge of Buddhist statues, to imagine what the ends look like, to size them to scale, and then to make other hands to offer those hands back. [The first] set of hands are in the typical Buddhist hand gestures — it’s a symbol of compassion, but they’re carved into Vietnamese white marble. And then they are holding [the second set of] hands, [which are] meant to be proportional to the Ghundara, as if we found the lost hands of the Ghundara Buddha. We like the idea that we can reimagine what the missing hands would look like and what they would be holding.

SR: Does it require reverence or respect to deal with these objects? 

TAN: They are filled with history, with cultural and social value. In Vietnam, people consider these objects to have spirits, and that way of thinking comes into and affects the way we think about them. One of my collaborators, [Phunam], and his father used to collect antiques from the Southeast Asian region, Vietnamese and Kamai antiques, so they have a certain amount of reverence for the objects they collect.

Mami Wata figure, 1950s, Nigeria

SR: Are you hoping these objects shift what you’re doing with the film? Does the installation change its meaning in some way?

TAN: We don’t hope to change the meaning of the film. I think we want to expand the conversation that the film gestures at, that the film tries to pull people into. For me, I like objects. Objects have a way of existing in the real world. There’s a certain kind of tangibility to the objects that allows people to think about things in different ways than if they were just to see a film. We’ve always been very interested in working with physical objects. We never thought we’d get the opportunity to do so in such an important institution.

SR: Anything else you’d like to say about how you set up the installation?

TAN: We were thinking that it would be set up in a processional format. We were interested in laying out the objects. Every shot in the films is a moving shot: We’re either moving forward or moving backward, so we wanted to reflect that in the configuration of how we laid out the objects, so it looks like a funeral procession.

New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations, installation view

SR: Do you have a favorite object from the collection?

TAN: I really like that ring of fire. I’m kind of in love with it.

New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations continues at Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave. S., Minneapolis) through September 10, 2017.

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