The cavernous photo galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art are normally home to works on paper, carefully displayed behind glass frames. For the next six months, however, they will house a more interactive installation of moving images and sculptural objects.
For “New Pictures: The Propeller Group, Reincarnations,” an exhibition opening Saturday, Ho Chi Minh City-based collective the Propeller Group will screen “The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music,” a meditation on Vietnamese funeral rituals. The 25-minute film will run continuously opposite an arrangement of funereal objects that appear to be staging a procession of their own.
These include a Chinese funerary mask (Liao dynasty, circa 916-1125), a third-century standing Buddha from Pakistan, a Kore Society mask from Mali and a transformation mask of the Kwakiutl tribe of Canada, to name a few — all drawn from the museum’s own collection.
The Propeller Group has also created its own masks, fusing past and present ritualistic practices, for the display.
The exhibition welcomes viewers to experience a liminal space, one in which death is a part of life. The group will give a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by a public reception.
We spoke to the show’s organizer, Yasufumi Nakamori, recently hired as the museum’s curator of photography and new media.
Q: You’ve been at the institute for 11 months. Where were you before?
A: I was the associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for eight years. Before that, I was a curatorial assistant in the Department of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum.
I came back to art history quite late. I was a corporate lawyer for six years in New York and Tokyo. Living through 9/11 in NYC really changed the way I think about my life. I went back to art history and got a Ph.D. from Cornell.
Q: What made you change fields after 9/11?
A: I was right by the North Tower when the planes hit. I was waiting for a taxi to Newark Airport to catch a flight to Tokyo. I lost a couple of friends. I had studied art history in the past, and I also was collecting works on paper and photographs, so I was super-friendly with a couple of curators at MoMA and I was always wanting to switch over to the producer side. I knew that if I changed careers, I wanted to be a curator. That decision came to me relatively quickly. Since then I have never looked back.
Q: Tuan Andrew Nguyen, one of the three members of the Propeller Group, has work in the Whitney Biennial this year. Is that how you learned of his work, or did you see it elsewhere?
A: I saw his film [“The Living Need Light”] when it was premiering at Prospect New Orleans [a biennial art event]. There is interconnectivity between South Vietnam and New Orleans, in jazz music and funeral traditions. I’m always drawn to this global interconnectivity, habitually linking cities in the global South. And then I was wondering, how could I make contemporary art history more complicated by injecting works from elsewhere, from the periphery, whether that is Asia or Africa? I loved Tuan’s film, so I proposed an acquisition of it on Day 3 of my job here.
Q: Tell me about the film. I’m most interested in the central character, Sam, who navigates viewers through funeral rituals.
A: Sam is the central figure in the funeral ritual. In Vietnamese, she is referred to as người chuyển giới, which translates to mean “transgender” in English, though based on Tuan’s conversations with people from the community and his understanding of Vietnamese, it can mean both transgender or transsexual. Sam performs in funeral rituals and sometimes on the street to make money. I think she represents this sort of in-betweenness represented in the film and the installation.
Q: Speaking of funereal rituals, I always think of American postmortem photographs and how they document the dead, which is less of a communal experience of death. I guess you could say that’s what a funeral is, but it’s just such a different tone culturally, here in America.
A: I agree, actually. Like you, I really love those pictures of ritual funerals. You know “Wisconsin Death Trip”? I love that book. But also the title for the show is “Reincarnations.” And I grew up myself in Japan as a Buddhist so I believe in the next life, so in a way death is a celebration for passage into the next world. I think that reincarnation — circularity of life as opposed to linearity — is something we’re all thinking about in the exhibition.