How a funeral from half way around the world can seem familiar

South Vietnamese funerals often include street performers like fire eaters.
South Vietnamese funerals often include street performers such as fire eaters and snake handlers. Here a brass band watches as a performance takes place.
Courtesy The Propeller Group

Given the long and diverse history of human kind, it's remarkable how alike customs can be in different parts of the planet.

That's the idea behind a new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art opening this weekend. The show is built around a movie called "The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music."

That title is an almost direct translation of a Vietnamese phrase, said Tuan Andrew Nguyen, whose artist collective called the Propeller Group made the 20 minute film.

He said the title captures the essence of Vietnamese funeral practices.

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"These ceremonies have to be lively and have a lot of music," he said.

The film includes a Vietnamese brass band which performs at funerals.
The Propeller Group film includes a well-known Vietnamese brass band which performs at funerals. For the film the group had them march in unusual places including mud flats.
Courtesy The Propeller Group

Music at those funerals often comes from brass bands. And Nguyen, who spent part of his childhood in the U.S., said they reminded him of New Orleans jazz funerals, and that got it got him thinking.

"We found this really interesting kind of overlap between the two cultures that don't speak to each other directly, yet they have like very similar ways of celebrating death," Nguyen said.

That is part of the thinking behind "The Living Need Light, the Dead need Music." The film is beautiful, engaging, and sometimes disturbing. It features many of the performers hired for funerals in Vietnam: professional mourners, acrobats, martial artists, fire eaters, snake handlers.

"For us, it's about making a film that pays homage to the people that labor around the idea of death, "said Nguyen.

A central character in the film is Sam, a transgender woman.
A central character in the film is Sam, a transgender woman. Transgender people often perform at Vietnamese funerals, one of the few places where they are welcomed.
Courtesy The Propeller Group

While the Propeller Group is an artistic collective based in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen said, it initially described itself as an ad agency so it could get around government restrictions on film making.

Propeller described its early work as music videos, and it's a term Nguyen uses for this work too.

"The film kind of sits on the edge of being documentary and fiction," he said.

Minneapolis Institute of Art Photography and New Media Curator Yasufumi Nakamori said that was attractive to him. He realized he could build a show around the film using Mia's vast collections.

"I invited them to collaborate with the museum, for them to select the objects and create the installations" Nakamori said.

Starting with the collection's database, Nakamori and the Propeller Group searched for objects that reflected the ideas and artifacts in the film.

Yasufumi Nakamori, left, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen
Minneapolis Institute of Art Curator of Photography and New Media Yasufumi Nakamori, left, and Propeller Group member Tuan Andrew Nguyen pose with a 10th century Chinese funerary mask. It's at the entrance of the latest New Pictures exhibit at the Institute, which is based around a movie the Propeller Group made on Vietnamese funeral practices. The exhibit also includes artifacts from the museum's collection and sculptures created by the Propeller Group. These include funerary masks of members of the Propeller Group, including Nguyen, created using 3D printers.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

They gathered pieces from the Asian, African, Native American and classical collections, including a 4,000-year-old Egyptian model boat. It's believed to be the oldest object in the Institute's holdings.

As visitors enter the gallery, they see the film, playing continuously at the far end of the room. The objects stretch out towards the screen like a funeral cortege.

Mixed in with them are sculptures the Propeller Group made to build commonalities with the movie. A sixth century Buddha figure is surrounded by a gilded ring of fire similar to a scene in the film.

Also like in the film, there's a huge ouroboros — or a ring formed by snakes, latching on to each other's tails.

Nguyen and Nakamori searched the Institute archives.
For the New Pictures show, Nguyen and Nakamori searched the Institute archive for pieces from cultures around the world with similarities to the images in the Propeller Group film.
Ana Taylor | Minneapolis Institute of Art

The final effect of the show is somehow both alien and utterly familiar. Nakamori hopes visitors will recognizes the ideas if not the objects.

"I don't want it to be just this exotic film from South Vietnam," he said. "Rather I want a viewer to connect with their own lives."

One example hangs on the wall at the entrance to the show: a 1,000-year-old gilt bronze funerary mask of a young woman. After seeing it Nguyen and another Propeller Group member had their own masks made using 3D imaging. They hang on the wall nearby.

"In these days and times where the selfie and the way that people imagine themselves and their portrait becomes so prevalent," he said, "we wanted to rethink that."

As Nguyen stood looking at his own death mask, he quietly said, "it's surreal."