The Propeller Group at Grand Arts
Talk about going out with a bang. The venerable Grand Arts, one of Kansas City’s leading art spaces for the last two decades, has closed its doors with an explosive exhibition, A Universe of Collisions, from The Propeller Group, a three man collective (Phunam, Matt Lucero, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen) based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Los Angeles. With deep vision and pockets to match, Grand Arts has midwifed numerous difficult, slow burn artist projects to manifestation over the years. Like Glen Kaino’s Tank, the thematically and aesthetically related exhibition that preceded it, A Universe of Collisions was just the sort of exhibition that could only appear at Grand Arts by way of Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale. It was a haunting experiment in gunplay writ large as a synecdoche of Cold War culture clash that continues to play out across our troubled pale blue dot.
In the dimly lit gallery space we encountered a sparse display of attenuated metal stands topped by illuminated gel blocks, the size of a loaf of sandwich bread, encased in vitrines. Suspended within the clear gel were the jagged trajectories of exploded bullets from the two most famous assault rifles in the world, the AK-47 and the M16. In keeping with their cross-disciplinary practice, The Propeller Group collaborated with ballistics experts to conduct a series of bullet-to-bullet showdowns with each weapon pointed directly at each other. The icy gel blocks were the perfect medium to capture the uncontrolled paths of shrapnel caused by the colliding bullets. We traced the entry points of each projectile as they rip through the gel to the point of impact. Here the events were frozen for us to ponder the destructive power of these weapons, to reimagine the violence in all its metallic minutiae. The effect was chilling as we easily transposed the gel for human flesh. These guns do kill people.
Two large framed works on black paper flanked the pristine row of vitrines. Entitled “Collateral Damage,” they recorded the chaotic penetration of projectiles in a two dimensional medium. Echoing the formal abstract beauty of action painting, these gestures shredded, tore and punctured, leaving us with a static spray of black holes. While the elegant display initially produced an air of luxury retail and art world preciousness with a whiff of gunpowder, at the back of the gallery a slow motion video loop raised the work to another level of sublime devastation. Channeling Harold Edgerton’s iconic high-speed bullet photographs of half-a-century ago, The Propeller Group updated this documentary approach with their expertise in 21st century videography. Seeing round after round of AK-47 and M16 bullets distend the gel blocks in violent flashpoints followed by exhalations of gun smoke fascinated in the same way we rubberneck at a traffic collision.
In an adjacent black box The Propeller Group leveraged their fluency in moving image media with the mother of all war-is-hell movie clip reels, “AK-47 – M16 The Film.” Sampling the huge array of armed global conflicts portrayed in narrative and documentary film since the advent of the Cold War, we were differently reminded of the protagonists in this body of work: the Russian designed AK-47 and its younger American counterpart the M16. The connection to Vietnam was palpable as the site where these two weapons first encountered each other in asymmetric warfare. The clip reel constantly disrupted heroic or revolutionary narratives in war films to foreground the proxy roles that each weapon represents. The AK-47: the inexpensive, indestructible, easy to use icon of the former USSR and guerilla insurgents across Asia and Africa, in contrast to the M16: the fussier, fancier, faster symbol of American imperialism. What lingered in the background of this rather punishing film is a very, very high body count and buckets of blood. However, the extraordinary success of each weapon as commodified objects of design was unquestionable. That was the ice-cold takeaway that runs through this universe.
The Propeller Group: A Universe of Collisions was on view at Grand Arts in Kansas City, MO August 7 – September 5, 2015.
The review was published in partnership with Plug Projects.