Worlds collide at 'The Propeller Group' exhibit

San Jose Museum of Art gets Mad Men on the Cold War in new multimedia show
In 'Television Commercial for Communism,' The Propeller Group reimagines the political philosophy as a big pharma ad.

Back in the early Aughts, a Vietnam-based art collective named The Propeller Group sought to explore the legacy of the Cold War with a publicity stunt. Tuan Andrew Nguyen says he and his partners at Propeller attempted to crowdsource $10 million to get their TV ad—a commercial for communism shot in the style of pro-oil company spots—aired during the Super Bowl.

"It failed miserably," Nguyen says. "We only raised $632."

The Propeller Group's failure is our food for thought. The first major survey of their work is currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art. Simply titled "The Propeller Group," the show features provocative hybrids of communist and capitalist ideologies.

According to Nguyen's history of the collective, when the group first started rampaging through the streets of Saigon and shooting video, the police almost confiscated their equipment. Just claiming artist status in a communist country wouldn't cut it. As a result, they had to register as an advertising company to circumvent the apparatus of state authority. Nowadays, their work blurs the boundary between fine art aesthetics and mainstream ad culture.

Perhaps intentionally, nowhere does this conundrum manifest itself more than the headlining project of the exhibit, Television Commercial for Communism. The Propellor Group commissioned a leading ad agency, TBWA\Vietnam, to "rebrand" communist ideology using the tools and techniques of its former rival, capitalism. Rather than preach either ideology, Television Commercial for Communism combines both into a hysterically unsettling experiment. One cannot tell if the process was serious or tongue-in-cheek.

In the gallery, viewers get to watch the resulting 60-second television commercial, which is populated by shiny happy people drenched in white. But that's not all. Attendees also get to stand right in the middle of a circular five-monitor installation depicting the ad agency employees brainstorming the campaign. Everyone sits around a boardroom table, discussing just how to divorce communism from its violent past and retool the ideology to fit within the parameters of consumerism.

As a political philosophy, communism stands diametrically opposed to commodity culture, especially advertisements which seek to promote consumption. But in Television Commercial for Communism, the ideology is repackaged and co-opted by its historical antagonizer. In the gallery, it becomes easy for the viewer, surrounded by the conversation from five TVs, to equate the crass ugly culture of the Western ad agency with some kind of futuristic gulag. The monitors function like propaganda speakers. One cannot tell who is colonizing whom, or who is being surveilled by what. Roles are reversed. The truth becomes fiction and ads become reality, with both communism and the advertising business functioning as similarly ludicrous forms of thought control.

A corresponding tension emerges via another fantastic multifaceted project, AK-47 vs. M16, exploring the histories of two specific weapons associated with the Cold War, the Soviet-made AK-47 and the American-manufactured M16. We see five crystalline blocks of ballistics gel, into which bullets from each gun were simultaneously fired at each other. The resulting trajectories of the bullets, the collisions and remnants of the bullets are visible.

It is a harrowing installation. The blocks are made of a substance that closely mimics human muscle tissue and were developed for a specific purpose: ballistic engineers used the gel to test the physical impact of bullets on the human body. To see the blocks now displayed on pedestals in an art gallery, with the exploded remains of Soviet and American ammunition preserved inside them, creates a tension between beauty and ugliness, peace and violence, creation and destruction.

An accompanying video shows the bullets colliding in the center of the gel in slow motion. The clip is paired with a wall-sized, hand-painted movie poster for the accompanying film, AK-47 vs. M16, satirizing the endless attempts by Hollywood to propagandize conflicts between the two global powers these weapons symbolize.

The Propeller Group
Thru Mar 25
San Jose Museum of Art

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