Art In Conversation
MEL CHIN with Lilly Wei
New YorkQueens Museum
April 8 – August 12, 2018
Mel Chin is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist and activist. In addition to that, his work demonstrates a sense of play and poetry, a kind of quixotic romanticism that, however, does not preclude skepticism. While he seems to thrive on contradictions, only a romantic would have conceived projects of such far-reaching social consequences, or would have taken on such daunting challenges and responsibilities. He is in it for the very long haul. Revival Field, which he developed in 1991 and continues to revisit, is one such project, an early intertwining of art and science and a pioneering experiment in green remediation. It spurred an involvement in environmental issues that has become one of the core concerns of his esteemed practice and includes such signature enterprises as Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project. That started in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina inundated the city in 2005 as a way to call national attention to lead-laced water and the plight of its inhabitants, especially the children. It, too, is ongoing and going strong. Chin often works collaboratively, and one of his most widely seen (if not equally widely credited) public art interventions was In the Name of the Place. He and the GALA (Georgia/Los Angeles) Committee he founded designed original objects seen by millions on the immensely popular television series Melrose Place, from 1995 – 97. However, they were so unobtrusively inserted into the scenes that very few viewers noticed, an exercise in subliminal social agitprop. KNOWMAD (2000), a video game based on rug patterns of endangered nomadic tribes that he developed with software engineers demonstrates a more technical side of his enterprise, and 9-11/9-11 (2007) is a poignant, hand-drawn animated film that unforgettably links September 11, 1973 in Chile to September 11, 2001 in New York.
All Over the Place, curated by Laura Raicovich and Manon Slome of No Longer Empty, is Chin’s first major show in New York in twenty-five years, and it is indeed all over the place, both in terms of site and substance. A comprehensive but not chronological survey, it presents objects, drawings, installations, and projections from more than four decades of his prolific production, offering some idea of his diverse ventures across cultures and histories to a new generation of viewers. To those who are already familiar with his work, it is a terrific re-introduction. The exhibition is thematic, structured around topics such as the environment, social and economic justice, political systems, and their impact on the personal, all problematic subjects that deeply engross Chin, a crusader for such issues in search of applicable solutions.
There are also four new commissions, Soundtrack, an aural work conceived with Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture) installed at a sound station at the Queens Museum and also available through its website, Wake and Ummoored, opening in Times Square July 11, and Flint Fit in collaboration with fashion designer Tracy Reese. There will also be a rededication of Chin’s permanent installation, Signal, in the Broadway-Lafayette subway station in NoHo on May 13th to honor his collaborator G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan – Seneca).
The following is an edited, excerpted conversation between Mel Chin and Lilly Wei at the Queens Museum on April 5, 2018,
Lilly Wei (Rail): Would you tell me a little about you and your background?
Mel Chin: I was born in Houston, Texas in 1951, grew up in the Fifth Ward, an African-American neighborhood, and later in Meyerland, a mostly Jewish community, and went to public schools there. I won a non-transferable college scholarship to Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, choosing it because they had hills, actual seasons, and possible snow. After that, I hit the streets. I didn’t go on for a graduate degree. I went back to Houston for a time, but after my anxiety about being there waned in the early 1980s, I came to New York and lived on the Lower East Side, Rivington Street, for almost twenty years. Some of my most crucial critical thinking occurred then; and now, I’m having my first big show here in over twenty-five years.
Rail: But before that, you were in New York when you were thirteen for the World’s Fair in 1964, which took place right here on the grounds of the present Queens Museum, so that’s a homecoming of sorts also. There’s even a photo of you and your family at the fair that’s in your show. It was a memorable visit for you in many ways.
Chin: Yes, except that I can’t remember any of it. Shortly after that visit, my parents were called to pick me up at school one day. I was ambulatory yet catatonic. That led to months of care that included shock therapy and ended with no prognosis for recovery. My parents were told to institutionalize me, but my mother visited some of the torture chambers that passed for mental health institutions back then and decided that the family would keep me at home. I wasn’t in the best state, didn’t even have the instinct for self-preservation.
Rail: How long did that last?
Chin: I spent about four months in the hospital, where I grew about a foot, and nine months in recovery at home.
Rail: And you lost a whole chunk of your memory. Did you ever get it back?
Chin: No. I have no memory of that time. I don’t remember being at the World’s Fair. Maybe I remember my little brother lost in Chinatown, but that’s all and maybe not even that.
Rail: What was the impact of that on your life?
Chin: When I finally woke up, consciousness—like an electronic blue pulse—turned on. Everyone was happy to see me back. I was back in a foggy way, as I was on a lot of pharmaceuticals at the time. But when I looked at sketchbooks that I had done when I was younger, one thing was apparent; I had lost the capacity to draw. I was trying to return to myself, but I felt that I could never get back to the sensitivities I might have had before. And that has driven me. It has kept me roaming, in a state of becoming—and always dissatisfied. People wanted to see me back. They wanted me to be as skilled as I was before. So I secretly taught myself to draw again. But in my own critical analysis, I’d lost something. So a lifetime is spent trying to regain a sensitivity that I’m not sure I really ever had.
Rail: We are all such fabrications, aren’t we?
Chin: Yes, we are, but the loss and the violence that comes with other losses that shake up our persona are not fabrications.
Rail: Do you find that you valued your previous skills—your gifts—more once you lost them?
Chin: I don’t know because I don’t remember that I had those abilities, but I do know that after I lost them, there was a hollow space that needed to be filled again—that had to be challenged.
Rail: I remember the show that you had all over Houston in 2015. Is this All Over the Place comparable? Did the Houston project serve as a model?
Chin: The Houston shows were part of a traveling retrospective called Rematch. So, this one is more accurately a post-retrospective comprehensive survey, as Laura Raicovich has said. It isn’t ordered according to a chronology, and although it has major pieces that were featured earlier, there are a few new ones. Miranda Lash, who organized the retrospective, figured out that I had a mutative strategy, so we didn’t have to reinforce that again. This exhibition is more about ideas that preoccupy my time. The four themes that the curators arrived at address that. This show is more about those four themes and how they intertwine and intersect. It is also my reintroduction to the city. Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand was shown in New York in 1987, and it is here—it has come back.
Rail: That’s your cosmological installation, isn’t it? Part mythic, part scientific, part alchemical and about origins? It’s based on Chinese and Greek sources as well as data from space probes.
Chin: Yes, since there are no planetary retrogrades or upgrades, it is presented as it was, a meditation on the origins of words, forms, and materials.
Rail: In reviewing the trajectory of your production, were you surprised in any way? What were some of your thoughts looking back?
Chin: Although I lack everything I need, I have been advised (via Bob Dylan), “Don’t Look Back.”
Rail: But it seems inevitable that looking at a survey like this, you would weigh your previous work against your current thinking?
Chin: This is a survey of ideas, different from one another, represented in enough diversity that I don’t have to pit them against each other; it has been informative to look at what was strong enough to survive. Now that I’ve done this much, I have to keep moving and push forward. The threads that come out of individual works can be explored further. Maybe some threads have continuity, and some ideas have just begun to be investigated. Thank goodness there are contemporaneous works that are still in progress. While we finished a new S.O.S for the POTUS, we are also moving forward, beyond the exhibition, to create a business model for Flint Fit with the people involved from Michigan.
Rail: Would you talk a little about Flint Fit? It’s the collaboration you did with New York designer Tracy Reese, who was born in Detroit. To describe it a little, it’s a new commission and focuses on environmental pollution, one of your major subjects, referring to the contaminated water supply of Flint, Michigan and the devastating public health crisis there. I heard that once Reese knew what your project was about, she was eager to be involved.
Chin: Well, it focused on something other than the egregious poisoning of a population, the outcome of austerity governance, and more on possibilities that respond to the additional indignity of the massive plastic waste stream that came with it. Tracy designed a line of rain gear and swimwear out of fabric made from empty plastic water bottles that the residents in Flint still have to use for safe water. We paid some citizens to collect piles of empty water bottles—around 90,000 of them—and then sent them to the reuse/ recycler Unifi Corp. in North Carolina where they were shredded and made into fabric. That was sent back to Flint, to the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, where local women were employed to sew Tracy’s designs. So, I can’t fix the water pipes there, but I can conceptualize something that can give the hope of restarting manufacturing that would be owned by folks in Flint.
Rail: Would you talk a little about the very ambitious Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project you conceived in 2006 in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? It’s in this show and addresses lead poisoning, environmental pollution, and children’s health.
Chin: Fundred is represented here by the Safehouse (2008 - 2010) door, an artifact from New Orleans, and the newly-drawn Fundreds by local New Yorkers. These are being pinned up all around the door…
Rail: It’s an enormous wall…
Chin: …becoming part of the exhibition. We are launching an All Over the Place version for New York City to cover all boroughs through city schools.
Rail: What’s happening with the Fundred Project now?
Chin: The Fundred Project has collected about half a million drawings equivalent to 50 million dollars. In the beginning it was conceived as an even exchange: a one hundred dollar bill drawing (a Fundred) for one hundred dollars of funding. But that was inadequate to stop the problem. So we began to connect with people involved in stopping the problem, with different coalitions and organizations, from policy makers to activists. They came together last year with a plan to stop the poisoning threat forever by advancing policies. We now live in the most contentious times in American politics, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We have the voices of the people. We have tens of thousands of drawings from New York alone. Fundreds give us access to congressional leaders from both sides. We are not asking for money but truth, bringing a unified message from the children—and by extension their parents, who are these leaders’ constituents—a request to stop the poisoning. And we offer them specific policy decisions they can make to respond to the request. It is my obligation to collect these drawings, hold onto them, and present them in their proper value. And that proper value is a child’s voice saying it doesn’t want to be poisoned. We present with seriousness—but it also can be fun conceptualizing the approach. For example, Fundred Project is going to Hill Day in DC on April 25th, the 4th anniversary of the Flint Crisis. We plan to be in front of the drinking fountains of the Cannon House Office Building. It’s the oldest congressional office building in DC, built in 1908, and its water pipes have been shut down because they are lead pipes, like those in Flint. So Fundred Project and Flint residents are headed to DC to say that even senators and congressmen need protection! Let’s solve it for the Cannon Building. Let’s solve it for Flint. And let’s solve it for every city that has this problem.
Rail: Didn’t you take these hundred dollar bill drawings to the Federal Reserve?
Chin: We took them to DC last year and started our own Fundred Reserve so that we have a base of operations from which to visit legislators. Why would I visit a representative from California? Because the problem exists there, we have an art project that has hundreds of thousands of drawings by kids who want it stopped. We want to make sure that the congressman or senator is educated about this. Our job is not to lobby or advocate but to talk with drawings. Fundreds are not being shown as artwork only or as a performance; they represent an investment in a quest, and that quest is to stop the problem of lead contamination.
Rail: This show, you said, is divided into four categories. Would you discuss the different categories, perhaps taking one piece from each as an example?
Chin: Yes, well, that’s tough to talk about one piece. Let’s talk about categories. It is Laura Raicovich and Manon Slome, the curators, who organized the categories, and I put them into these words.
Rail: You call one category the “Destroying Angels of Our Creation,” which sounds very Miltonian, avenging.
Chin: And a little Rilke-like… The words are poetic portals into my engagement. “Destroying Angels” can be our particular form of democracy and its preoccupation with war. It can be a cargo cult-like, full-scale replica of a Daisy Cutter bomb hovering in the atrium; or environmental destruction and injustice, where actions such as Revival Field, Fundred Project, and Flint Fit are the response. The four categories in All Over the Place pay homage to, or are mostly about, lamentations. Some are evidence of actions; some are the beginnings of action. Whether I'm making work for an audience, or for myself to refresh my imagination, I ask: is it strong enough to capture the imagination of others, provide a catalytic moment?
Rail: Revival Field (1991 – ongoing) was such an influential work, an experiment to test the capabilities of certain plants to absorb heavy metals. You were searching—with the collaboration of scientists—for an efficient, low-cost way to reclaim contaminated soil. It’s often cited as one of your most important works, a breakthrough of sorts, an earthwork with a purpose, connecting art and ecological issues, looking for actual solutions.
Chin: It is so well documented that it was a joy to represent it here as diorama, the actual plants samples and soil from the 1993 Pig’s Eye landfill site in Minnesota put in a natural history context. The diorama conveys the project’s process and projections. It is somewhat new, as I put it together in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s basement shop, while my retrospective was going on upstairs.
Rail: And you have never really dwelt on your identity as Asian-American?
Chin: I have in a few works, but I wanted to be in a world of ideas and not be boxed into a preconceived identity. Art history and art marketing probably would prefer my works to be more specific and easily categorized. My identity is in all my work. That includes all the legacies I’ve absorbed. I have a contradictory approach to things. I think of making art as an investigation, a way to puncture delusions, to reflect on, to analyze, to perform the necessary critique of my life. All kinds of identities are needed in art-making conversations.
Rail: And the second category?
Chin: The “Artifice of Facts and Belief” is an open and common practice now in our “alt-fact” world. But maybe it was always that way. The major work in it is The Funk & Wag from A – Z (2012), my re-compilation of information that was factual at one time and has lost its credibility because of time. The thinking in 1953 is not the thinking now, but it can serve as a personal, contemporary conversation through the collages. I took every graphic in Funk & Wag and built a whole lexicon, an encyclopedic presentation of 524 hand-cut and glued collages. The facts of the time, the captions that accompany images can be dead or dated, but the images can have a resurrection. And this cycle can be seen in other categories. You have to come to it from the angle that the source material provides.
Rail: And the third category: “Levity’s Wounds and Gravity’s Well”—about colonialist legacies of all kinds. Would you talk about that?
Chin: Well, I can’t change what Leopold II did in the Congo, but I can make a piece like Safe as a lamentation. I can’t change the tragedy of the opium addiction that affected my family—we weren’t allowed to talk about it until my mother died—but I can make it work to deepen what I can say about it now, especially how the nightmare of addiction can sit in a home as a monstrous furnishing, out of scale and ready to attack. That piece talked about the whole history of it, including the economic components.
Rail: You mean Cabinet of Craving (2012)?
Chin: Yes. Someone just asked me if it referred to Louise Bourgeois’s spider—it’s a little bit about her spiders but more inspired by her use of Victorian vitrines. That was what I found to be influential. What it contains is a history that needs to be addressed. You want to make a vitrine compelling enough that the viewer wants to know the clues. The silver tray and teapot in the belly of the beast come from the years of the Opium Wars in China around the mid-19th century. The references can be traced. The desire for tea and porcelain on the part of the English was met by the demand for silver from the Chinese as payment. Short on silver, the British illegally smuggled in opium to upset the trade by inducing unprecedented addiction, and that led to the Opium Wars. Leaving traces in a restrained way is something I strive for. You can see in the Presence of Tragedy a fragile, breakable smile engraved in porcelained steel, hammered until its surface was punctured and torn by repeated blows. I think of it as the uncertain and shattered emotions worn as friends died in New York during the AIDS epidemic, and the unfolding of 9/11.
Rail: You did an animated film, 9-11/ 9-11 (2007) that is going to be placed over the World Trade Center in the Queens Museum’s famous panorama of the city for the duration of the show. The towers are still in it.
Chin: What looms over all of us is the gravity of the impact of 9/11. Kissinger said that the American government’s hand must be hidden in setting up the other 9/11, when Allende was overthrown and assassinated in Chile in 1973. In the film, the hand of the Chilean animators, whom I sought out to make the film, is shown. It’s not only about history; I wanted to make a film that decenters America’s preoccupation with its 9/11 by combining it with the one we perpetrated. The NYC tragedy was used to fuel a rabid nationalism, then purposed as a cause to wage unquestioned war. So showing a film about both 9/11s over the panorama is a way to propose we also examine relationships that need to be rethought.
Rail: And tell me about the last category, “The Cruel Light of the Sun.” You have a series of unauthorized portraits included here, a series of found paintings that you cannily and wittily cut to reveal their subjects’ natures from a more contemporary, undermining perspective. Could you talk about it and Sea to See (2014)? To describe the latter very briefly, it’s two hemispheric projection screens separated by a space that viewers can walk through, representing the Panama Canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Chin: A cruel light on human nature in those portraits and a strong light on environmental information and data that portray oceans under great stress is Sea to See. There was a challenge. How do you make portraits of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans? I visualized the data and images from oceanographers and composited them as layers on a film. Why do that? Because data on climate change is undeniable, but some of it is hard to understand without familiarity with scientific graphs and language. Transforming information into streaming layers of cinematic evidence is a way to convey the impacts the smallest creatures on the planet have within the largest bodies of water, along with flowing non-water made by scanning static maps of ocean depths. Why do that? Sometimes the making of a work of art is just creating a stimulus, a beginning to reach and appreciate new conclusions. Address the eye with a visual form of science so it can work on the mind to accept it; I’ve been thinking about that a lot and starting to put those thoughts into actions.
Rail: Maybe we should talk about…
Chin: All Over the Place? If you have a title like that, you’re obligated to do that.
Rail: So then, the other venues—Times Square and the subway station at Broadway-Lafayette. Would you discuss the Times Square projects that will debut on July 11th?
Chin: Wake is a physical piece, more like what you would expect as a public sculpture. It is an object on the ground, and it is temporary. It is carefully considered so it looks like it should be there, but then doesn’t actually fit in. It’s fragments of the full scale beached remains of a 19th century clipper ship with ribs that might look more animal or whale-like. Wake comes with an oversized figurehead 21 feet tall. Why make her so big? Because she is the figure of Jenny Lind, a 19th century Swedish opera singer, one of the first superstars.
Rail: Yes, P.T. Barnum toured her around America in 1850, and she was a sensation, celebrated as the Swedish Nightingale.
Chin: There is a recently-released musical about Barnum starring Hugh Jackman that has made Jenny Lind well-known again. So where else should she be but in Times Square in the middle of Broadway? She’s being fabricated at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She is animatronic and will move, but in a corseted, restrained fashion; she will occasionally breathe and sigh and look upward. Trailing behind her is what might be a ribcage or the skeleton of a boat or a whale.
Rail: Sounds like it should stop us in our tracks.
Chin: I hope so. We’re still building it. What is she looking at? Unmoored is the follow up, a mixed reality (MR) project developed with Microsoft. It’s mixed reality so you can see it within the Times Square environment. These are some of the questions I asked myself in making it. What could we do that would cover the entire square and is phenomenological? That is linked to your cell phones and you can hold it up and down and see something extraordinary, something you’ve never seen before? What would be a 21st century response to these questions and available for anyone to download?
Rail: Can you be a little more specific?
Chin: I won’t discuss the content in detail. I will say that our digital devices, shown in studies, are said to be responsible for lessening our empathy. Okay. But rather than critique that, what can we do? Can artists insert phenomena, within the devices, that are shown to have the capacity to override a soul-robbing condition? In overseeing the development of Unmoored, this is the task, and we’re very excited about it. We have a 19th century artifact, the animatronic present, the history of a clipper ship once in New York harbor caught off the coast of Africa running slaves, reduced to skeletal remains at full scale. And we have the presence of organisms essential to life on earth teeming above visiting people. Apparitions can occur through your cellphone—it’s a Times Square takeover. You might look at it, hear it, sense it, and then ask: what is it?
Rail: And tell me about Signal at the Broadway-Lafayette station, completed in 1997. And again, to describe it a little—there is a tile pattern on the wall at each level of the station and also cones wrapped around the base of some structural columns, their designs reflecting the light and glow like the campfires they suggest. They also alert passengers that a train is arriving.
Chin: Looking at New York subways in terms of material, where did the choice of tile come from? It is from the Dutch and makes sense with New Amsterdam and their wall that became Wall Street. The goal was to insert the living cultural presence of First Nations peoples in the station named Broadway-Lafayette because Broadway was built over their original trail that was stopped by the Dutch fort wall (Wall Street). The pattern of blue tiles on the walls against white tiles, based on wampum belts, as a current message from Native Americans, was needed. I collaborated with G. Peter Jemison, who is Heron Clan Senecan, on that pattern. He took it to existing tribal leadership to approve before we executed it in tile. Why am I so interested in Native American messages in the middle of Manhattan? Because Manhattan was the home of the Six Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, Tuscarora, and Oneida). And Broadway and this station were part of the original trail that led downtown, a historic path. The Six Nations are an indigenous culture that is of the past and the present; their members built the skyscrapers that define the city, and they are still here and live throughout the region. In doing a subway station that was alive, reactive, it was important to have their input. When the original signage was made, it didn’t include Peter’s contribution in it. He wasn’t officially commissioned, and that’s why he was left out, but I wanted to acknowledge what he did. So we are creating a new plaque, and we are re-dedicating the station on May 13th.
Rail: That was almost twenty-five years ago, but yes, it’s important to acknowledge, even if belated.
Chin: I wanted to bring it forward in a thoughtful way. I wasn’t responsible for the signage then, but I can be responsible now, and here’s a chance. It makes me feel better because it reflects the true intent of the piece. Different times make us see different aspects of things and to see omissions more clearly. And I want to insert the living culture into this.
Rail: When did you first start doing installations, as opposed to objects?
Chin: In the mid-seventies when I started to exhibit—it was another way to make art, and everyone was doing it. But as the exhibition reveals, when the concept demands an object, installation, or action, it will be so. I like how craft can be utilized to create these “anxious objects” loaded with philosophical information, cultural and otherwise, and how objects can be used in a performative way.
Rail: How effective is art as activism?
Chin: I don’t know about that by itself, but if properly partnered and sustained, it can be effective. It can also benefit if the concept is willing to bend and evolve. Activist positions aren’t solo adventures as much as they are collective transformations.
Rail: And your actions?
Chin: I view my works as actions in process. We’re not stopping just because it has been effective as a concept. I’m not giving up on the people of Flint. I’m not giving up on all the kids in Fundreds. There is nothing to give up on if we are still working together. And we are going to deliver.
Rail: You talk about poetics often.
Chin: I’m interested in the poetry of the projects and their survival. Does it have a life? Is it sustainable? We’ll see.
Rail: Even if you aren’t making your work for an audience, who is that audience that you aren’t making it for? Who sees the work?
Rail: But most museums have long been considered elitist bastions even if there is a concerted effort on the part of art institutions of late to be more accessible, more democratic with more community involvement and outreach, more welcoming, which includes free admissions sometimes—and to adapt to new kinds of art practices.
Chin: The Queens Museum has a much more public face than most museums, and I appreciate that. It might be too far from Manhattan for certain people, but there are lots of people here. Maybe this is the audience this show deserves—and wants. But there can be improvements. I have long suggested that museums can do more than bus people in and should be exploratory, supporting the creative communities outside their walls. Soundtrack is such a project, less about my control and more about supporting New York DJs to unleash the mechanical/human sound possibilities of the 1, 5, 7, E and F trains. That’s also why there are Fundreds from all over the place and such a diversity of responses. There are many possible ways to discuss things, to have conversations, to be influenced and stimulated and be compelled to offer meaningful feedback. I’m dealing with a lot of different things; consider this a beginning. My definition of art is that it is a catalytic structure, that it provides a place for languages being born to survive, that it provides options, which is more important to me than just change. I’ll probably never be happy, but if I can offer a real option to a dismal situation, I’ll be okay.