BY Jay Murphy in Reviews | 16 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 166

Mel Chin

New Orleans Museum of Art, USA

BY Jay Murphy in Reviews | 16 SEP 14

Mel Chin, Safehouse part of Operation Paydirt / The Fundred Dollar Bill Project, 2008–10, renovated house in the flood-damaged neighbourhood of St Roch, New Orleans

Mel Chin is an artist who pays meticulous attention to materials, and who has excelled at agitprop wordplay and ‘insertionary’ tactics that détourne mass media. He’s an artist who has recurrently explored the vagaries of being Asian-American while eliding the categorizations of once-triumphant identity politics, who has confronted a host of political-social atrocities in his work while insisting that changing oneself is the highest goal. Chin’s multi-tasking makes him something of an enigma. Consistently stretching, questioning or even refusing self-designation as an artist, Chin has often switched hats – most notably in his well-known Revival Field (1991–ongoing): installations that tested the ability of hyper-accumulator plants to soak up and transform toxins from poisoned waste sites. With his later Operation Paydirt (2006–ongoing), Chin became a full-time negotiator whose art form was navigating the various governmental, scientific, corporate and art bureaucracies concerned. Revival Field found its funding, however, as an aesthetic not scientific project, and Chin’s design folds the experiment back into a cosmological form: the plants arranged in a circle within a square with intersecting walkways, harking back, as Lucy Lippard has noted, to Heaven and Earth in Chinese mythology. That ‘Rematch’, the fullest retrospective of his career to date – covering over 40 years of work and including early works such as Vertical Palette (1976–85), Magnolias in the Moonlight (1976) and Bird in a Cage (1976) – was held in New Orleans was also appropriate, as the city has been the location of several of Chin’s public site-specific interventions.

Chin’s early and still powerfully resonant series of sculptures, ‘The Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand’ (1987), does not evoke the harmony of the spheres so much as provoke the fragmentary, stabbing attempts at knowledge. Inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp’s use of the Chinese alchemic tradition (Duchamp once stated that he was alchemical in the only way still possible, by not calling it such), Chin’s arrangement of the planets is intricately personalized. Earth is weighted with the same mass as Chin himself, and the distance of the astronomical units is based on the 20-cm span of Chin’s hand, each unit composed of a single hand span – the ‘cult of the hand’ also referencing the ‘strength objects’ or ikengas of the Ibo in Nigeria, which pay homage to the power of life and death residing in that limb. Remarkably overlaid extrapolations, mythologies and metaphors, often based on qualities of the minerals associated with each planet, lead one, Chin hopes, to ‘see beyond’ the object.

Chin’s prolific social and interventionist work, also included in this exhibition, echoes André Breton’s memorable description of Frida Kahlo’s work as a ‘ribbon wrapped around a bomb’. Ostensibly dedicated to ‘changing oneself’, Chin’s practice is about the reinvention of the commons. New Orleans has been the site of several of these attempts at problem-solving, such as the linked Operation Paydirt, Safehouse (2008–10), and Fundred Dollar Bill Project (2008–ongoing). A close cousin to Revival Field, this collaborative work sought to resolve the dangerously high concentrations of lead in the soil in New Orleans (as in other urban areas) by tilling-in an organic phospate over the contaminated soil, binding the lead and rendering it safe, which can then be covered by a new line of plants. It’s a protocol Chin dubbed ‘TLC’ – treat, lock and cover (pioneered by the military to contain the lead on bases). To fund this, Chin launched the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, asking the children most affected by lead poisoning to draw on templates of dollar bills, creating a kind of symbolic money that would be actualized when delivered $300 million strong (the estimated cost of a complete remediation of New Orleans) to a concerned Congress that would then allocate the money. Despite falling far short in ‘fundred’ raised (in reality, just over 350,000 bills were created during the myriad viral and educational event spin-offs), the project led to such protocols being adopted in West Oakland and New Orleans. If Chin’s political and participatory projects sometimes appear as ghost stories – gesturing towards a public that is missing, or ‘as if’ there is responsive democratic governance – they are also ways of creating in the margins a more viable ecology, of images that might have resonance with an actually renewed environment.