Founded 20 years ago, the nonprofit artspace, Grand Arts, has never shied from controversy. Its final exhibition,” A Universe of Collisions” by the three-man international collective The Propeller Group, is no exception. The show is timely and unsettling, and viewers could experience conflicting emotions about the exhibit’s seeming ambiguity toward its subject matter. Which is probably the point.
The exhibition fills two rooms. On the back wall of the first gallery, a video captures the sight and sound of two bullets –one from the infamous AK-47 assault rifle and the other from an M16–smashing into one another as they are fired, in a face-off, into a block of clear resin. Resin-filled glass vitrines containing the upshot of the actual collisions line up in the center of the room; the side walls display pitch black canvases with scattered residue from assault rifle explosions.
The initial sensation in this space is one of icy, poetic elegance tinged with menace.
A smaller gallery features a 30-minute video of spliced-together fragments from documentaries, promotional tapes, YouTube clips, and movies featuring both types of assault rifles. The guns are the protagonists throughout. It’s a testosterone-laden half hour of blood and guts that many will find disturbing, even the fictional moments. It’s not always easy to tell what’s real and what isn’t and again, that’s probably the point.
After leaving the movie, the first gallery space feels noticeably different upon re-entering. There is an increased awareness that the resin used to encase the bullets on display is comparable in density to brain tissue. Artwork that might have seemed poetic at first now feels distinctly more poignant, even repulsive. But those big guns will still hold some viewers in their thrall.
Matt Lucero, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam started The Propeller Group in 2006. The collective’s primary location is in Ho Chi Minh, the capital of Vietnam, and they also work in Los Angeles. As the exhibition essay by Rob Walker notes, their subject matter concerns “the divisions, schisms, and collisions created by and resulting from the Cold War era.”
In a recent talk at the gallery, Lucero said that his father was a Vietnam War veteran and he had grown up with stories about the war. The Avtomat Kalashnikova combat weapon, otherwise known as the AK-47, was developed by a Russian in 1947 and was the weapon of choice for the Vietnamese when they fought Americans, who carried M16s which were made and designed in the United States.
Americans lost that war and there is probable consensus that the AK- 47 outmaneuvered the M16. As Walker’s essay states, in a quote from Larry Kahaner’s 2007 book AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War: Almost seven decades after its introduction, the AK-47 and its successor models have become “the undisputed firearm of choice for at least fifty legitimate standing armies.”
Mikhail Kalashnikov, who first developed the AK-47 and chose not to patent it, claimed he devised this most lethal of weapons simply to defend the borders of his country. It is estimated that there are now 80 to 100 million AK-47s on the planet, along with countless M16s. There was and still is a “rivalry” amongst warring nations, guerrilla groups and gangs as to who has the biggest and best guns. “A Universe of Collisions” aims to show us there are no real winners in these kinds of contests; at best one achieves a stalemate.
“The Propeller Group: A Universe of Collisions” continues at Grand Arts, 1819 Grand Blvd., through Sept. 4. Hours are 10 a.m.to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816-421-6887 or grandarts.com.