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I love the Propeller Group, and was duly impressed by their scathing video piece, “Television Commercial For Communism (TVC),” in the New Museum’s show, Ungovernables. A faux ad campaign, the piece pitches the new Vietnamese Communist Party dipped in a “We Are the World” sugar coating.
The group, comprised of Phunam (Vietnam), Matt Lucero (California) and Tuan Andrew Nguyen (Vietnam) are really great at staging fawning propaganda parodies. Phunam first specialized in the restoration of Khmer and Vietnamese stone and bronze antique sculptures, and is also a self-taught cinematographer who has produced many television commercials, music videos, documentaries, short films and television dramas. Matt Lucero graduated from Cal Arts and has exhibited throughout the United States, including the California Biennial. Tuan Andrew Nguyen received his Masters of Fine Arts from The California Institute of the Arts and is also one of the founders of San Art, an artist-initiated exhibition space and reading room in Ho Chi Minh City. And yet despite this collective experience, their reined-in launch show Lived, Lives, Will Live! at Lombard Freid Projects was anti-climatic.
It contained endless bland oil paintings depicting Leonardo DiCaprio as a younger version of Vladimir IIyich Lenin, the link between the two provided by internet conspiracies that DiCaprio is a “lost relative of Lenin.” Using Lenin has sort of lost its punch since Perestroika — except for neo-patriotic groups like the Cossacks of St. Petersburg, who harass contemporary curators at the Hermitage Museum for showing anything remotely controversial. Self-styled Cossacks want to bring back that old time agit-prop (in the name of God/order) a real need bubbling under fallen Communist dictatorships the Propeller Group could surely focus on, instead of tired fiberglass Chinese-produced castings of Lenin with some fake bling around his neck.
The Lenin sculptures, with or without bling, are a take-off and send-up of China’s endless regurgitations of Mao Zedong; the Gao Brothers‘ “Miss Mao” oeuvre has even juxtaposed both tropes. It’s clear the Propeller Group has been contemplating the Chinese mass production of art in their new work. But these pieces lack the lacerating critiques of previous video works like “The Guerillas of Cu Chi” or “Static Friction: Burning Rubber,” turning astute mimicry into bland repetition. Because they are so great at “rouge nation rebranding,” those killer videos should have been in the contents of their war chest for their first commercial U.S. show.
Propeller Group has a lot to get off their chest. In a 2011 interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tuan Andrew Nguyen states that Vietnam has been one of the most “mediated nations out there … by a U.S. media machine, U.S. journalism, Hollywood” and his focus is “how to challenge that history of mediation,” or as I like to call it the Apoclypse Now-ification of their country, in order to “challenge that history of mediation.” They deeply understand the link between propaganda, media, power, and manipulation. The DiCaprio-Lenin synthesis is smart and soigné, but it skips a beat by leaving behind a cauterized impression of this ensemble’s true merit.
The Propeller Group’s Lived, Lives, Will Live! continues at Lombard Freid Projects (518 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26th.
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