Fire, Humor, and Water: Videos by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group at Asia Society

Installation view with FX Harsono’s 1998 Burned Victims in foreground

Several provocative video works in After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History, on view at Asia Society through January 31, caught my eye, notably ones by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group. The curators chose the works in the exhibition not as a survey of art from Southeast Asia–there are only 7 artists and 1 collective from 3 countries–but because they speak to the role contemporary art can have in countries struggling with reform, free speech, and democracy. FX Harsono uses blowtorches and chainsaws in aggressive performances that express rage at political events in his native Indonesia. Of a later generation, the Propeller Group, a collective of three artist connected to Vietnam, use humor in their polished video works to point to lingering dissonances in contemporary Vietnamese society.

FX Harsono. Detail, Burned Victims, 1998. Burned wood, metal, shoes.

Destruction and Burned Victims are literal titles for these late ’90s video performances. FX Harsono performed Destruction in 1997 as a response to concerns about voter fraud under president Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government. In it, he destroys theater masks resting on three chairs, which represent the three political parties then vying for power. Couched as a piece of public theater–with Harsono in traditional make up and the masks referring to puppet theater–it was also an act of civil disobedience. At that moment, assembly of more than five people was illegal in public space. Harsono attacks and destroys the wooden masks, first by chainsaw and then by blowtorch, in front of onlookers.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

Burned Victims memorializes a protest in 1998 against Suharto that turned violent–rioters locked civilians inside a shopping mall in Jakarta and set the building on fire. The sculptural installation is equally grisly–a row of charred, torso shaped pieces of wood suspended on metal frames, each of which has a pair of burned shoes at the end. The different pairs of burned shoes turn what might be a more abstract sculpture into something much more stark and horrible, reminding of the individuality of the victims of the fire. In the video performance, Harsono douses the torsos with gasoline and lights them on fire. Signs with slogans of Riot burn, and Harsono places another sign in front of the audience: “Who is responsible?”

The Propeller Group. (Still) The Dream, 2012. Single-channel HD video; 4 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Propeller Group, who had an exhibition last year at James Cohen gallery, strike a different tone. Their two video works use humor to critique society in a more distant and subtle approach than Harsono’s outraged cry. One, called The Dream, shows a Honda Dream motorbike that, strategically placed overnight on a city street by the artists, is dismantled of its parts by various thieves as the night wears on. The skeleton of the bike is on view in the gallery in front of a time-lapse video of the night. It is quite humorous to watch this ubiquitous Vietnamese status symbol disappear over the course of the night. Behind the joke, the Propeller Group also comment on the corrosive elements of capitalist change that has swept the nominally Communist state.

Installation view of The Dream at Asia Society, featuring stripped down body of Honda Dream motorbike in foreground

The second work that they show, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, consists of two facing monitors–one plays Viet Cong promotional footage from 19631 and the other shows present-day foreign tourists shooting old AK47s leftover from the Vietnam war. The tourists mug for the camera as they gleefully enacting war scenes. Both videos are about the Cu Chi Tunnels, underground passages used by the Viet Cong to combat the U.S. during the Vietnam war that are outside Ho Chi Minh City. The same soundtrack and captions overlays both, highlighting eerie parallels despite the disjunct in time and purpose. Both the old propaganda and the new tourist site are distant from the carnage and suffering that characterized the lived experience of the war, and indeed, instead seem designed to perpetuate such history as war games.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

From the far end of the exhibition galleries comes the sound of rushing water. Already, in contrast to blowtorches and AK47s, the use of water rather than fire or guns strikes a less violent note. In this video performance, Harsono writes his name in Chinese characters over and over again. The artist is ethnically Chinese, a minority in Indonesia, and in the face of discrimination against the language and culture, he only learned the Chinese characters of his name as an adult. We watch from the other side of the glass panel as the strokes of black paint begin to overlap and take up more and more of the surface, growing into a black mass. Suddenly water pours down from above, washing away the ink even as the artist keeps making the motions with his hand. Rather than water as a cleansing agent, here water is a deluge sweeping away the artist’s Sisyphean efforts in a show of force and might.

FX Harsono. Writing in the Rain. 2011. Video performance

Music & Mourning: The Propeller Group at James Cohen Gallery

propeller-groupThe film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, currently on view at James Cohan’s Grand Street location, takes the colorful funerary traditions of south Vietnam as a means to meditate on loss and mourning. Yet the emphasis is very much on life–on the people performing the rituals of mourning rather than the absent dead. To create the 21-minute work, first shown at Prospect in New Orleans in 2014, The Propeller Group attended and recorded the funeral ceremonies of several people. In doing so, they found not just ritual practices–extreme demonstrations such as balancing motorcycles on one’s head or sword swallowing–but a cast of charismatic characters, such as the leader of the brass band that processes through the film in white.

The film is full of dances with fire and snakes, feats of skill, flowers and processions, and, paramount to all, music. Music permeates the film. It is not just the auditory soundtrack we hear, although that is compelling in itself. The Propeller Group portrays musicians alone with visual references to karaoke and music videos. The pace of jump cuts matches the rhythm of the different Vietnamese songs, whose sad and trite lyrics are shared on screen in English captions. The lip syncing of featured individuals registers as slightly out of time with the soundtrack.

IMG_9291Swirling camera shots develop a sense of intoxication while the music acts upon the emotions of the viewer. The music’s emotive register reminds me of the sentimental pathos of Ragnar Kjartansson‘s work rather than tragedy, perhaps because the film uses signifiers of the dead without the dead being present. No bodies are shown. The viewer only sees coffins or, at most, pictures. The focus is on rituals that stress aliveness, as if the passage from death to life should be celebrated. And, in fact, the Propeller Group borrowed the tittle of the film from a Vietnamese Buddhist proverb, which calls for the playing of celebratory music for the dead.

timthumbThe Propeller Group shot everything in ultra-high definition video, creating a lush and convincing dreamworld for the viewer. Using both documentary footage and staged reenactment, the  film moves seamlessly between real and unreal space and time. Thus while the film is specific to local particularities, it becomes a poetic rumination on life, death, and the stages in-between. The Propeller Group has seamlessly worked in artificial effects, like the silhouette of a person being filled with CGI red fire (pictured in the image below). It works because the real footage is as fantastical and evocative as the artificial scenes that it blends with, and it is partly the lyrical movement between documentary footage, staged reenactments, music video style scenes, and computer effects that makes this film such compelling viewing. IMG_9284

Up through May 15 at James Cohan Gallery at 291 Grand Street.