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The Propeller Group
The Propeller Group was established in 2006 by Phunam Thuc Ha (b. 1974, Saigon, Vietnam) and Tuan Andrew Nguyen (b. 1976, Saigon), who were joined by Matt Lucero (b. 1976, Upland, California) in 2008. Phunam studied sculpture and conservation in Bangkok, Thailand; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and at the École des Beaux Arts, Hanoi, Vietnam. Nguyen earned a BFA from the University of California, Irvine (1999), and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (2004), where he met Lucero, who completed his MFA in 2003. Lucero earned a BFA from the University of California, Riverside (2000). Phunam and Nguyen cofounded the artist-run alternative space Sàn Art (Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon) along with Dinh Q. Lê and Tiffany Chung in 2007. The Propeller Group now participates in operating the space.
The Propeller Group makes large-scale collaborative projects in new media, from videos to web-based applications, taking a special interest in mass communication. Applying systems-hacking tactics, they appropriate strategies from advertising, marketing, and the rarefied forms of commodity exchange and display that take place in galleries and museums. Information is their medium and Vietnam is frequently their subject. In Viet Nam the World Tour (VNTWT) (2010–12), the Propeller Group subjects the nation—its history, culture, and people—to a re-branding campaign. Enlisting street muralists, graffiti artists, hip-hop dancers, and pop musicians, they attempt to propagate a global public image of contemporary Vietnam as fresh, vibrant, and creative. Via promotional videos, performances, a website, and paraphernalia (including t-shirts and stickers), VNTWT exploits the power of pop culture to satirize nationalism.
To appreciate the Propeller Group’s work is to enter an extended network of aesthetic and cultural production. Their participation in The Unseen (4th Guangzhou Triennial, China, 2012) involved artisans from Dafen, the Chinese village famous for manufacturing reproductions of oil paintings. The Propeller Group invited workers to paint self-portraits in the spirit of emancipated creativity, with their usual product relegated to the background. This premise was adapted from a 2004 project by the group REGIONAL, who are acknowledged in the work’s title, Regional Reproduction: Self-Portraiture and Emerging Artistic Consciousness in Dafen (2012).
The Propeller Group also functions as the production company TPG. In addition to making music videos, multimedia installations, and the occasional commercial, TPG has collaborated with Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê. They also regularly team up with subversive Danish art collective Superflex, coproducing Burning Car (2008), Flooded McDonald’s (2008), Financial Crisis (2009), and Porcelain (2010)—a three-part television series, broadcast in Vietnam, based on a 17th-century shipment of the eponymous ware from Asia to Holland. As the Propeller Group, they cocreated the artwork FADE IN: EXT. STORAGE – CU CHI – DAY (2010), an absurdist short film whose title is here abbreviated from the entire script, which involves customs, cargo, and international shipping. The distinction between the Propeller Group and TPG is as significant as it is spurious, critically reflecting on the shifting relations between art and commerce. According to Nguyen, “Confusion is good. When people are confused, they actually have to think.”¹
The Propeller Group has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Sàn Art and Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City (2012) and 10 Chancery Lane in Hong Kong (2012). They organized the exhibition Your Name Here in collaboration with Tyke Witnes, a participant in VNTWT, at Sàn Art at L’Usine, Ho Chi Minh City (2010). Notable group exhibitions include Strategies from Within: Vietnamese and Cambodian Contemporary Art, Ke Center, Shanghai (2008); Farewell to Post-Colonialism, 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, China (2008); Commercial Break, organized by Garage Projects, exhibited in Venice (2011); The Ungovernables, New Museum Triennial, New York (2012); Made in L.A., Los Angeles Biennial, Hammer Museum (2012); and Six Lines of Flight, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012). The Propeller Group’s members live and work between Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles.