The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music is a spectacular visual and musical journey through the carnivalesque funerary traditions of South Vietnam. Part document, part fantastical reenactment, the video, was created by The Propeller Group, a Ho Chi Minh City-based artist collective founded in 2006 that includes Phunam Thuc Ha (b. 1974, Vietnam), Matt Lucero (b. 1976, United States), and Tuan Andrew Nguyen (b. 1976, Vietnam). The work is the group’s most personal undertaking to date: a poetic rumination on life and loss, and homage to the performers that occupy the threshold between this world and the afterlife.
Shot both in-studio and on location in the Mekong Delta region, the video’s dreamlike sequences follow brass band musicians, spiritual mediums, professional criers, and street performers through the mournful and euphoric ceremonies of a public wake. These rituals resonate with the jazz funeral traditions of New Orleans, where the video debuted in 2014 as part of the exhibition, Prospect.3: Notes for Now. While the two traditions are only distantly related, having incorporated an element of European brass band processionals from colonial militaries, the video amplifies a sense of cultural and geographical interconnection. The music and lyrics that recur through much of the video are drawn from “Một Cõi Đi Về” (written by composer Trịnh Công Sơn, 1939-2001), a mainstay of Vietnamese funerals, but the band also plays a New Orleans standard, “It Ain’t My Fault” (written by Smokey Johnson, b. 1936, and Wardell Quezergue, 1930-2011), suggesting a more contemporary encounter, perhaps online.
The aesthetic quality of The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music is also very much of this moment: shot in ultra-high definition, the video’s production values are on par with commercial music videos and Hollywood films. Displayed here at a heretofore unrealized scale, the installation immerses viewers in a lush, transfixing atmosphere on the borderlands between reality and the unknown.
This exhibition was organized by Amanda Donnan, assistant curator of contemporary art.