Reviews

Where the Dead Don’t Stay Dead: The Propeller Group at James Cohan, New York

Through May 15

The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014, single-channel projection, 25 minutes, 15 seconds. MAX YAWNEY/©THE PROPELLER GROUP/COURTESY JAMES COHAN, NEW YORK

The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014, single-channel projection, 25 minutes, 15 seconds.

MAX YAWNEY/©THE PROPELLER GROUP/COURTESY JAMES COHAN, NEW YORK

One of the highlights of Prospect.3, the 2014 edition of the New Orleans biennial, was the electrifying film The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music by the Propeller Group, a collaborative consisting of multidisciplinary artists Phunam, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Matt Lucero from Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles. Making its New York debut in James Cohan’s newest space on the Lower East Side, the 20-minute film (its title is taken from a Vietnamese Buddhist proverb) leads you on an odd, mesmerizing odyssey through the muddy swamps, paddies, rivers, and islands of the Mekong Delta as well as through crowded streets with their gatherings of motley mourners, performers (look for the one with the snakes), and onlookers.

The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs. M16, 2015, fragments of AK-47 and M16 bullets, ballistics gel, custom vitrine, and digital video, 7⅛ x 16⅞ x 7¼ inches. MAX YAWNEY/©THE PROPELLER GROUP/COURTESY JAMES COHAN, NEW YORK

The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs. M16, 2015, fragments of AK-47 and M16 bullets, ballistics gel, custom vitrine, and digital video, 7⅛ x 16⅞ x 7¼ inches.

MAX YAWNEY/©THE PROPELLER GROUP/COURTESY JAMES COHAN, NEW YORK

Following a troupe of musicians playing brass instruments led by a wiry bandleader of impassive visage and tarnished charisma, the funeral processions memorably twist together ritual and music, disrupting the quotidian by introducing the bizarrely surreal and enigmatic—a kind of Asian magic realism. Here, the dead do not seem to remain dead, roused, perhaps, by the pulse of the music, the line between life and death rendered not so hard and fast. The sound is both exuberant and haunting, turning mourning into something jubilant, upbeat, and surprisingly pure.

AK47 vs. M16 (2015), which was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale, is installed in the gallery’s backspace. In this piece, bullets from two assault rifles were fired into a translucent gel block. The weapons, developed by the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively, are emblematic of the Vietnam War, while the gel, used for ballistic testing, replicates the density of human flesh. The war may have happened more than five decades ago, but its wounds are not fully healed and may never be, even as its dead stay dead.

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