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Matters of life and death

The Propeller Group The living need light, the dead need music 2014 (still), Art Gallery of New South Wales © The Propeller Group

The living need light, the dead need music by The Propeller Group combines the genres of documentary, music video and feature-length film with a score of Vietnamese mourning refrains to take audiences on a fantastical funeral procession from the urban laneways of Ho Chi Minh City to the waterways of the Mekong Delta.

Produced for the Prospect New Orleans contemporary art triennial in 2014, the work was acquired in 2017 by the Art Gallery of NSW and is currently screening in our Asian galleries until early 2020. Here’s a trailer…

I talked to Tuan Andrew Nguyen from TPG about the film and their approach to art, music, death and rebirth.

Can you tell us a little more about where the title of this work comes from and what it means in the context of Vietnamese funeral processions and ideas around life and death?

The title comes from a Vietnamese proverb that describes how death and funerary traditions should be celebrated with sound and music. In essence, it’s the idea that death should be met with a celebration of an individual’s life. Similar notions run throughout Vietnamese tradition, like how one should not cry during funerals to avoid creating sadness for the spirit of the recently passed and hinder their transition to their next life. The proverb itself is not one that is very well known. There isn’t much written about the topic [but] we found a short interview with a scholar from the north of Vietnam who had mentioned the proverb. At once poetic and abstract, while deeply resonant with local beliefs concerning life and death, we immediately knew that it would be the most fitting title for the work.

You’ve described Vietnamese funerals as ritualised forms of public resistance, stating that ‘they become one of the rare opportunities for the transgender community to come out and perform and express themselves’. In the film, the young protagonist, Sam, transitions from a boy into a young woman. How do funeral rituals offer such opportunities?

We believe that the funeral ceremony in Vietnamese culture opens up a very powerful liminal space. One can think of the traditional Vietnamese funeral as a space between the private and the public, the living and the dead, or a space between mourning and celebration. So, this liminal space is powerful because other liminalities have the potential to open inside and occupy these spaces.

From our conversations with the different communities involved in enacting funerals in Vietnam, we believe that it has been the case for a while that the rituals have allowed for what we now call the LGBTQIA+ community to express themselves. I think it comes from long-standing traditions in mysticism and supernaturalism. In Vietnam, there’s a belief system called Mother Goddess Cult in Vietnam where the spiritual mediums are often gay men who become the bridge between the spiritual world of the mother goddess deities (and other spirits) and the living world. So, there’s a history of the spiritual connected to gender liminality.

The Propeller Group The living need light, the dead need music 2014 (still), Art Gallery of New South Wales © The Propeller Group

The film opens with a very sombre musical introduction by a traditional orchestra featuring a dan gao player, then shifts gear with a big brass band covering the 2008 song Trouble is a friend by Australian performer Lenka and culminates with the sounds of New Orleans jazz. TPG were part of a generation of kids growing up in the 1980s with MTV. How much is your work inspired by those early years watching the new genre of music videos emerge and who are your biggest musical/music video influences?

I personally didn’t get to watch too much MTV because my family didn’t have cable television when I was growing up. But funnily enough when YouTube came out, I caught up on my MTV references quite quickly. While TPG was taking shape I was invited to make music videos for different pop singers in Vietnam and those eventually ended up becoming the first commercial TPG projects. This was also when we got our feet wet with the music video format, learned the techniques and the language of this particular short-form moving image genre. The living need light can essentially be read as a music video or a music film.

You mentioned that the film was inspired by the music of the American south. While the similarities to jazz and second line jazz funerals in New Orleans are uncanny, it’s important to clarify that if one were to ask any of the funeral band members in the film in particular, or in southern Vietnam in general, they wouldn’t have referenced New Orleans jazz nor would they have much knowledge of that specific genre of music. The origins of this tradition are not locatable. This is what’s fascinating about the funerary traditions here: its point of origin is fairly unknown and it’s a tradition in flux, not bound by a set of rules or restrictions. The film’s strength is situated there; it claims multiple histories and none at all.

Actually, during the editing phase, when someone pointed out that the band was playing a rendition of the pop song Trouble is a friend by Lenka, this reified the idea of the funeral ceremony as a tradition in flux and one that is very sensitive to a multiplicity of different and subtle cultural artifacts that somehow migrate through the many currents of contemporary culture.

American films about the war in Vietnam such as Apocalypse now and Platoon were actually filmed in the Philippines. These films are underscored by a fictional construction of Southeast Asia as a location for seductive yet dangerous journeys. How do you think your film engages with this lineage of filmmaking about Vietnam?

Hollywood never attempted to portray Southeast Asia, the people or the culture here, or even the landscape with any real sense of care or intimacy. There was never an intention for intimacy, and by intimacy, I mean a desire to understand the humanity of a people or a culture through emotional proximity and empathy. Hollywood always aimed to tell ‘American’ stories, and this was always at the expense of the representation of other cultures and peoples around the world, who simply became backdrops, extras, or evil and disposable antagonists to be expelled by the Hollywood heroes.

The living need light, the dead need music in its most basic role is an homage to these people who labour in the mourning of death and the celebration of life. We wanted to create as intimate a portrait of these characters as possible. It was also an attempt to see if ‘ritual’ could be captured as a kind of portraiture. But we never made it a conscious point to counter Hollywood narratives. Our intention comes from a different place and maybe that positions it outside the lineage of American filmmaking.

The landscapes that speak to death in American films are landscapes of war. Decades of colonial enterprises and military interventions created a Western psychology that links tropical jungles with death. This psychology is then amplified by Hollywood’s dramatisation of those landscapes via Vietnam War films. The landscapes in this work are landscapes of the living, which we believe speak of growth, a continuation of life and of resilience. Hollywood treats death as a simple plot twist that ups the ante for the protagonist. Here we try to treat death as a significant moment in people’s lives that allows for intense and intimate reflections on suffering, compassion, the body and its ephemeral nature, memory, and healing. Just as societies must heal after immense devastation, so [must] the landscape. And the metaphors provided by this parallel are fascinating for us.

The Propeller Group The living need light, the dead need music 2014 (still), Art Gallery of New South Wales © The Propeller Group

In 2016, TPG parted ways to pursue individual interests. At the time, you talked about the separation in terms of the death of the group but suggested that reincarnation may be possible. Will we see the group reform?

The Propeller Group was imagined and set up to be a platform for collective thinking and coordinated action. We had come into a set of conditions for a few years, primarily between 2012 and 2015, where we were fortunate enough to get multiple opportunities to produce and exhibit and this led to TPG being known as a collective of three specific members. But TPG had several iterations of membership prior. In the beginning, we had looked into other collective structures, like film crews, or advertising agencies, graffiti crews, art collectives etc and concluded that for a collective to survive itself, it must be more like a ‘brand’. So, this brand that we’ve created, or rather borrowed from other agencies and collectives, became something like a shell, inhabited by ghosts – different ghosts at different times, even though [co-founders Phunam Thuc Ha and Matt Lucero] have turned their focus to long-awaited personal projects. Brands last a little longer than collectives we think, but even brands will disappear eventually, right?

A version of this article first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine

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October 15 2019, 2pm
by Matt Cox
Curator of Asian art