The Propeller Group has many points of origin. I started working with Matt Lucero while in graduate school at CalArts. We took part in different collaboratives and would disband themafter every project, forming new collaboratives as needed. Then in 2006, I began working with Phunam on different documentary projects. While shooting, we quickly learned at that time that we needed permission to shoot in public so on a whim, we applied for a “film production” license. We quickly found out that an “advertising” license actually gave us more access to doing other things, like renting out billboards, organizing events and so and and so forth… so we became a fake advertising company/film studio called The Propeller Group.
In 2007, Dinh Q. Le and I started tinkering with the idea of starting an artist-initiated space in Saigon. So along with Tiffany Chung and Phunam, we started the space with the hopes of becoming a bridge between the arts community in Vietnam and the arts community internationally. We were focused on generating dialogue and providing a space for experimentation.
I knew before I entered the master’s program at CalArts that I wanted to move away from the US for an unknown period of time. I also knew that I wanted to spend a substantial amount of time with my grandmother, who is a poet. I felt connected to the different stories I would hear as a child. She was like a heroine to me. I managed to get myself back to Southeast Asia by attaching myself to different projects and ended up staying ever since.
I think globalization of the art world in recent years is a double-edged sword. Suddenly, places that were being “overlooked” by the major art institutions of the world were finally gaining notability, but at the same time, the artists and art communities in these very places had to face very complex challenges of looking at their practices from a different point-of-view. And in doing so, artists have had to find a balance between having or losing control of their practice.
I was elated to be included in the exhibition with so many other wonderful artists. Working with June Yap, the curator, and the team at the Guggenheim has been delightful.
Every artists’ practice must evolve over time, otherwise the work will remain stagnant, frozen. I actually haven’t made much work about expatriation or displacement since my days as an undergraduate art student. In recent years, my work has often investigated the idea of culture -how culture is produced, and moments where culture goes through dramatic shifts. These shifts are interesting to me, as they are often marked by confusion and violence. This violence is manifested in a variety of ways, i.e. monuments being erected or toppled, media defining or re-defining cultural values, and other cultural events. The gaps that occur during these cultural shifts are points for me to enter and produce work.
I believe that the context in which the work is shown will always bring other layers to the work. How the work is read by audiences is determined quite a bit by the context, i.e. the institution presenting the work, the exhibition space, and even the curatorial platform on which the exhibition is mounted. I think that the fact that the work is traveling a lot gives it a different subjectivity, a sort of fluid subjectivity. I like that this exhibition has traveled from New York to Hong Kong and now to Singapore. Travelling from country to country is such a part of one’s notions of nationality, but simultaneously it has the potential to challenge those notions of borders.
I worked with a carver to realize the work. The carver’s name is Phùng Hữu Thái and he lives in Hue, Viet Nam. The carver’s name is Phùng Hữu Thái and he lives in Hue, Viet Nam. About 5 or 6 years ago, I connected with Thai through my collaborators, Phunam and Xuan Phuong as Phunam’s father Ha Thuc Can used to work with him. They both worked closely with carvers from Hue on antique restorations and replications. Thai is based in Hue and has won many awards within the country for his artworks. One thing that drew me to him, besides his skill of course, was that he had several images of Thich Quang Duc in his studio as well as images of all the Buddhist monks who followed Thich Quang Duc’s footsteps in protest by self-immolation. I believed that he would be the one able to “release” that image of the monk and the engulfing flames from inside that baseball bat.
The art scene as well as the art community in Vietnam as a whole is a bubbling cauldron, or a ticking time-bomb. Artists are truly invested in their practice here and are finding ways to build the tools and the structures they need to make the work they feel is necessary and urgent.
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