Two enemy soldiers from the Civil War fire their rifles at each other. The projectiles crash, fusing in mid-air. Neither man is injured.
That apparently happened during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The remaining artifact inspired a new exhibition by art collective the Propeller Group.
“A big question that I have is what does it mean to have two bullets from opposing sides of a conflict colliding in mid-air?” artist Matt Lucero says. “Futility comes to mind.”
This concept gets frozen in time with startling clarity in “A Universe of Collisions,” which opens Friday at Grand Arts. The exhibit features the impacts of dueling bullets suspended in rectangular blocks of FBI ballistics gelatin.
Lucero and partners Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam launched the Propeller Group in 2006 to produce atypical art projects. The trio work out of dual headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) in Vietnam and Los Angeles.
None of these artists was trained to be a marksman with a combat weapon. So the three sought advice from experts. This led to a partnership with Chesapeake Testing, a ballistics experimentation lab in Maryland whose company slogan is “A small business with a big impact.”
They helped the Propeller artists re-create conditions for bullet collisions, only with modern weapons and updated ideologies.
“Initially, we were very interested in re-creating the fused Civil War projectile that is shrouded in myth and was also the subject of the television show ‘MythBusters,”’ Lucero says. “The projectiles we were using in our tests, one from a (Soviet) AK-47 and another from an (American) M16, were significantly different than the American Civil War minie balls of the past. They travel much faster, and they are both different sizes. So getting the fusion to happen was a major challenge, even more so than what ‘MythBusters’ was attempting.”
This led to hundreds of trials through three phases at the ballistics lab. Eventually, 21 successful collisions emerged.
“We were actually able to capture much more than the remnant of two fused projectiles,” he says. “We ended up being able to visualize and memorialize in a way, a frozen-in-time, still-life of the actual collision. You can see gunpowder residue of the collisions, fragments flying out from the impact point and the trajectory of these fragments as they exit parts of the gel block.”
Lucero, a California native, earned a master of fine arts in 2003 from the California Institute of the Arts. There he met Nguyen, a native of Ho Chi Minh City. Third member Phunam studied oil painting restoration in Hanoi, Vietnam. The industrious group soon developed a reputation for ambitious multimedia endeavors that often explore the Cold War clash between capitalism and communism.
“It seems natural for us to be flexible about incorporating different disciplines and avenues of distribution for our projects. Doing so opens up a wider dialogue with a viewer,” says the 39-year-old Lucero, who admits his favorite part of the artistic process is getting “lost in research.”
“Collisions” includes components beyond the physical blocks. A looped video documents these bullet hits. It was shot at 324,000 frames per second and is now presented in ultra-slow motion. Another video unites music, movie clips and found footage to posit the AK-47 and M16 as stars of their own heroic drama.
Additionally, large mounted drawings display shrapnel patterns from the detonations.
Lucero says those in his adopted country of Vietnam don’t hold the same fascination with firearms shared by Americans.
“In Vietnam, guns are highly restricted, and only top level security guards and police are allowed to possess them,” he says.
He adds that the country isn’t particularly enamored with art, either.
“The contemporary art community in Vietnam receives no government support. Contemporary art is not taught in schools, and access to contemporary art on a ground level is very thin,” he says. “But that’s not to say that spaces do not exist that help nurture the needs of the art community.”
“A Universe of Collisions” marks the final exhibition for Kansas City’s Grand Arts. Following a 20-year run, the venue shuts its doors on Sept. 4 after a closing reception for the show.
The building has been donated to the Kansas City Art Institute’s graduate program.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
“A Universe of Collisions” by the Propeller Group opens Friday with a opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at Grand Arts, 1819 Grand Blvd. The artists will give a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday. The exhibit is free and runs through Sept. 4. More at GrandArts.com