(Talk given at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, for The Propeller Group exhibit, 13 September 2017)
I’m not an artist nor an art historian, yet art is necessary to any reasonable and meaningful examination of the past. The way people view and represent their past—culture, struggles, social relations, work, wars—is an essential part of understanding where the world has been and maybe where it’s going.
I’ve also spent a lot of time studying the American war on Vietnam, which began after World War II and continued into the early 1970s. I know a good deal about the historical episode that we call “The Vietnam War,” but this exhibit isn’t about that . . . except when it is.
The Propeller Group [TPG]—an art collective-cum-ad agency—has created an exhibit that tells us something about the Vietnam War, something about Vietnamese culture, and a lot about the way ideas and indeed the past itself becomes contested and commodified. And that’s the immanent lesson I’ve taken from this collection of art, performance, and video.
At first look, I saw/experienced a recreation of a conversation between a Fedex worker and one of the collective members.
Fedex: The staging of history is happening around us all the time. We basically live in a staged version of the past . . . As if the past was a mall where you could pick and choose a lifestyle as easily as choosing a new wardrobe.
Tung: I’m not sure . . . I don’t even care much about authenticity.
Fedex: That’s exactly my point! You should care. Stop being so ironic and use something real for your show.
As soon as I read this exchange, a lot of thoughts came to me, ideas I’ve used in my classes and in my own writing. I thought of Guernica and Confederate statues, of internet memes that today constitute a large part of our public education. Of Antonio Gramsci and bourgeois cultural hegemony. And I thought a lot about the intersection of art, politics, history, and revolutions and wars. What we call “The Vietnam War” was in the first instance “The Vietnamese Revolution,” in which nationalist/communist forces led by the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) fought against the occupation of French and Japanese forces, and then fought a long war of revolution and liberation against the most powerful nation on the globe, the United States. The Propeller Group leaves this unsaid, and lets us see what the war brought—not why it happened or why it was fought. It’s up to us to fill in all those spaces.
I thought of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, who in Revolution Betrayed wrote that “. . . a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” Or the Dada idea of upsetting the bourgeois world created by affluent and artistic Europeans, and making us question the very point of art and what artists do, most relevantly in the case of TPG by incorporating everyday objects (like the Honda Dream) and happenstance into their work, making a mockery of the established hegemonic culture as a way of resisting it. Or Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Reichstag or Pont-Neuf Bridge . . .
It especially made me think of the idea of the spectacle. In all that I read about and by TPG, their videos and manifestos, they never made reference to the society of the spectacle, but they had to have been thinking about it. The Marxist philosopher Guy Debord, writing amid the global uproar sparked by decolonization but especially the massive resistance to the Vietnam War as well as the careening consumerism that had grasped control of postwar Western culture, developed the idea of “the spectacle,” his encompassing term for the way postwar capitalism created the cultural devices—advertising, television, film, celebrity, media, scandal, and others—to foster, and yet conceal, “the autocratic reign of the market.” The spectacle shifts our attention and soothes us from the reality of consumption, struggle, wars and so on. Debord himself was a founder of the Situationist International, a collective of artists and others who opposed postwar capitalism and played a prominent role in the 1968 May uprising in Paris, where their motto, “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” summed up their vision of the world they wished to create (and also helped create the Sex Pistols via Malcolm McLaren).
It is within this longer historical nexus of art and politics that I think TPG exists. Among the emphases, the very points, of this exhibit, are to show, in their words, how Vietnam was “mediatized,” or more strongly, to show its “Disneyfication.” Earlier in their careers, they did a “rebranding” of VN—“Vietnam—The World Tour.” They have taken one of the more compelling and determinative events of the postwar world, a long series of conflicts, of wars, in Vietnam, and turned it into something that we now consume, in Rambo films, in Don Draper-like ads for communism, in a heroic battleground becoming a kitschy tourist attraction, in an exchange in which a well-informed artist gets schooled by a Fedex clerk . . .
Before saying something more specific about TPG, I think it’s important to talk a little bit about the historical episode we call “The Vietnam War,” the mostly unspoken but obvious backdrop to this show. The United States essentially invented a country below the 17th parallel of Vietnam, The Republic of Vietnam [RVN] or “South Vietnam,” and spent two decades and billions of dollars, and caused massive damage, to maintain its creation instead of allowing Vietnam to become a unified country under the leadership of the nationalist and communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. In its pursuit of retaining the geographic structure/fictive state below the 17th parallel, American forces destroyed the land of their ally, the RVN in the south, as much as their foe, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRVN] in the north. Using its vastly superior technology, the United States dropped 4.6 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and another 2 million tons on Cambodia and Laos. American forces sprayed over 11million gallons of Agent Orange, an herbicide containing dioxin, a cancer-causing agent, and dropped over 400,000 tons of napalm. The impact of such warfare was immense: over 9000, or about 60 percent, of southern hamlets were destroyed, as were 25 million acres of farmland and 12 million acres of forest. American bombs created about 25 million craters, many still containing active bombs today (over 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed by UXO since 1975).
Worse, the Vietnamese suffered between 2-3 million deaths in the war, the vast majority non-combatants in the north, the Cambodians and Laotians had about 300,000 killed, and a greater number was wounded. And by 1975, there were 15 million refugees in Indochina and nearby countries. All in a nation roughly the size of New Mexico. It was a war in which Americans established “free fire zones” from which U.S. forces conducted “search-and-destroy” operations to full clear the area of the enemy, which of course led to huge body counts of anyone who was Vietnamese. In addition to alienating their would-be “allies,” such tactics served little military purpose as the enemies would retreat from U.S. offensives, regroup, and then return to control the villages the Americans had destroyed.
Such is the background, the political/artistic/military backdrop to TPG’s show. Its work, as it describes it, is “deeply rooted in Vietnam’s history, politics, and everyday life, and yet extend[s] to address global phenomena, including international commerce, globalized street culture, and the tools of war.” This show lets us see both of these goals—the roots of Vietnamese history and politics through features on Cu Chi and the main weapons of warfare, but also the extension of art into the terrain of globalization and commerce, the commodification of the war itself into something that most Americans see through the lens of Rambo or Forrest Gump or television images of antiwar protests and hippies or, coming soon, the de rigueur Ken Burns PBS special, not from the vision of works like TPG has here.
The first thing you see, or the first thing I saw, the Television Commercial for Communism TVCC], shows both the playfulness and political critique of TPG. Vietnamese communism has a long history, as a contested idea and ultimately as the basis of a long series of wars against global powers—France, Japan, the U.S. But in this commercial, TPG presents us communism as a product, like Ivory soap, all white and 99 and 44/100 percent pure. It’s a “new communism,” wafting on a white cloud, with a multicultural group all in white clothing looking like a group of friends having Sunday brunch or meeting for coffee at Whole Foods to talk about Communism, a system where everybody is equal, they share the world, and speak the language of smiles.
TPG turns modern mass media on its ear and uses the tricks of the market to promote an inherently anti-market political system. Obviously, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, yet we use such marketing ideas for democracy and capitalism without sneering or cringing at them. We wave the flag and sing the national anthem before Pentagon-sponsored sporting events and say the pledge of allegiance every day or see ads on TV for “an army of one” or a navy “defending freedom” and we’ve been told that all men are created equal. Really, the ad for the new communism is no more ridiculous to billions of people all over who have worked in sweatshops, been invaded by larger empires, had their resources pilfered for industrial capitalism, had their lands taken, or had their ancestors kidnapped and put on the middle passage than a pitch for communism would be. If we can accept the idea of American Exceptionalism without question, then why not a “new” communism . . .
The TVCC commodifies an ideology that’s vilified in the U.S. and makes it visually appealing to the “free,” i.e. private and corporate, market west. It asks us to “buy” communism, like we make choices to purchase and consume any one of hundreds of brands of beer or toothpaste or coffee, or democracy. At an International Conference on Developing Consumer Citizenship in 2002, the keynote speaker was excited to report that “for the first time, citizenship is being found in consumption. It is no longer possible to cut the deck neatly between citizenship and civic duty, on the one side, and consumption, and self interest, on the other . . .” While it would be easy to laugh at this, I think she’s right. Consumption has become the basis for our citizenship. In the aftermath of 9/11/2001 the president and officials all over the U.S. encouraged Americans to go shopping to show the terrorists that we weren’t beaten. In the aftermath of any calamity, like the recent floods here in Houston, one of the key markers of recovery is when we can get the malls, and when stores and bars and restaurants open again, when we can resume our consumption.
While the TVCC is I think the most clear example of the TPG’s art collective-faux ad agency (or is it real?) mission, three films form the heart of this show. In The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, the group provides a vivid short film about a Vietnamese funeral, a syncretic blend of ritual and religion that immediately reminds one of a New Orleans funeral. Death and rebirth are vital aspects of the work of TPG and a highly significant part of Vietnamese culture. Villagers venerated their ancestors and when the Americans waged war they often destroyed the village connection to its past. In one program, the strategic hamlets, the U.S. and the RVN government removed peasants from their home villages, where they were vulnerable to Viet Cong recruitment, and put them in areas protected by barbed wire and security. The plan backfired as the Vietnamese villagers in the new hamlets were separated from their pasts, from their ancestors, and felt alienated toward the Americans. The video of the funeral, with a brass band, a snake-topped pyre, and the ceremonial burning of money (American money) to accompany the dead into the afterworld, highlight this element of Vietnamese culture.
The other two videos are more directly linked to the war. In AK-47 vs. M16, The Film, the group highlights not the soldiers who have fought in so many battles in the Cold War era, but the technology, the commodities, they have used, the AK-47 and M16. With a campy movie poster and a film with cuts from movies and other media, TPG breaks the war down to its essentials, showcasing the means used to kill, not the humans killed. And then it shows how these machines became stars unto themselves in Hollywood. As noted earlier, so many Americans have learned about Vietnam from Platoon or Rambo that it’s only fitting that we pay homage to the guns that made the war possible, and so bloody.
To me, the most riveting element of the show was The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, a piece that showcased the war and the ultimate commodification, or Disneyfication of it. Cu Chi is a village just outside Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) famous for its intricate series of tunnels. The National Liberation Front/Viet Cong was powerful and well-represented in the southern half of Vietnam (hence the futility of American efforts to dislodge the enemy) and built an amazing underground world which they used as bases for logistics and communications, from which they would pop out to conduct guerrilla operations, where they would store food and supplies, which had hospitals and schools in them, where they would live, appear outside, and then retreat to safety. The Guerrillas of Cu Chi features a 1963 propaganda film put out by the NLF and Hanoi. In a quaint voice, a woman talks about the deadly weapons used by the VC to kill American soldiers—both traditional means like guns and guerrilla weapons like punji sticks. The VC, with “a rifle in one hand and a plan in the other” set out to liberate their land and oust the foreign invaders. The video has almost a folksy tone to it, like a come-on for a time-share, as the narrator pitches the Vietnamese revolution, describing the heroic actions of men and women who vie to earn the title of “American Killer Hero.” This is the most direct reference to the war in the show, and gives context to everything else in it. Even at the outset of the war, the Vietnamese communists understood the need to “sell” it to the world and won that global battle for acceptance, as the movement against the war became immense and international.
But as the original propaganda film shows on one wall, on the opposite side, with the same script and narration, is a video about Cu Chi today, a tourist destination where westerners can relive the war without the blood and guts and gore. People from all over, including many Americans, visit Cu Chi to check out the tunnels (which have been widened to fit much-larger tourists), learn about the war as a cultural experience (presumably the “American Killer Hero” designation isn’t highlighted), and, as the video shows most memorably, can pay a dollar per bullet to shoot an AK or M16 at a target. The point of the war in Cu Chi was to kill Americans, but now Americans pay money to visit the village and shoot the rifles used in the war. It’s the ultimate commodification, taking a violent act of revolution and turning it into an act of consumption.
The Cu Chi experience also raises an important historical analysis with which some of us who study Vietnam grapple. I agree with scholars like Noam Chomsky and Gabriel Kolko that, given the nature of Vietnam today, the U.S., which obviously lost the war in the 1970s, was forced out of Vietnam by the Vietnamese communists, have ended up “winning” it today. Vietnam, as TPG emphasizes, has entered into the global market. It’s a member of the WTO and has significant foreign investment, with companies from China, Korea, Japan, and of course the United States all over. Tourists can go to a KFC or Pizza Hut, and then go to Cu Chi and play Rambo. In fact, in the 1980s the government cracked down on veterans and workers, two groups essential to the success of the revolution, because of their protests against government market policies when they were particularly vulnerable to the austerity of the postwar era.
Even when capitalism loses, it ends up winning. The market has more endurance than war does. And this “new Vietnam,” rebranded and pure, was the long-time goal of the U.S. and the west in the Cold War era. Indeed, the U.S. became involved in Vietnam to create an outlet for Asian capitalism—a useful ally for Japan (and China prior to 1 October 1949) to trade with, invest in, get resources from, and help promote the global network of capitalism led by the Americans, but which Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist/communist agenda disrupted.
This show brings up so many ideas and questions about Vietnam, about the past, about the way we learn about, or advertise, the past. Right now we’re having a national dialogue, and dispute in many cases, about the American past, and the place for statues honoring the Confederacy. Most of these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War but later, in the 1910s or 1950s, as messages to African Americans about the primacy of white southern culture, yet they get pimped out as markers of a proud “heritage.” As The Propeller Group understands, the way we learn about the past has huge meaning. In 1984, George Orwell wrote “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
So in 2017, whether in Charlottesville, Virginia or Cu Chi Village, Vietnam, the past is still being contested and art is a major weapon for all sides. It helps us determine what we learn, what we believe, and what we buy.