In 1993, long before body cameras became standard police equipment, Mel Chin created Night Rap, a police nightstick retrofitted with a wireless microphone. He implanted the type of weapon used in the notorious 1991 beating of Rodney King with a device to record its use. In 2006 Chin designed Cluster, a series of jewelry pieces composed of precious metals and gemstones modeled after the wounds created when cluster bomb fragments and rounds from assault rifles rip through human flesh. Produced at the height of the Iraq War, the piece could also be seen as a response to domestic mass shootings and ongoing military campaigns abroad. The previous year, Chin finished Shape of a Lie, a witty sculpture featuring a realistic tongue poking through a hole in a gallery wall. Its title suggests an intention to evoke the kind of mendacity that pervades political discourse, preventing real solutions to recurrent injustices in American life.
Chin has long been preoccupied with the brutal realities underlying the American dream. Over the last forty years, he has probed the militarism that followed the 9/11 attacks, the racial dynamics that repeatedly excuse episodes of police brutality, the American culture of violence, and the class resentments that prevent action on common issues. Chin creates deeply researched multilayered works, tracing the links between history, science, mythology, literature, high art, and pop culture. His sculptures and gallery installations can make sprawling references, yet are surprisingly elegant and beautifully crafted. He has also pioneered a form of public art in which people from diverse backgrounds collaborate on projects that have import far outside the boundaries of the art world. Chin has worked with video game designers, environmental biologists, Microsoft engineers, soap opera producers, fashion designers, and even politicians from across the ideological spectrum. The result is an art of complexity designed to counter the oversimplifications that dominate our politics.
Thanks, perhaps, to his protean approach, Chin has often flown under the radar. Despite a resume heavy with international exhibitions, public art projects, shows with midsize regional museums, honorary doctorates, and university appointments, he has had only sporadic gallery representation over the years. In the early 2000s, he had several solos in New York with the late dealer Frederieke Taylor, but he currently has no commercial representation. A midcareer retrospective organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2014 had a limited run, traveling only to Houston and St. Louis.
Chin’s relative obscurity stems in part from circumstances of geography and biography. He was born in Houston in 1951 to Chinese immigrants who owned a grocery store. His parents encouraged his artistic and intellectual leanings and supported his enrollment at the George Peabody College in Nashville. After graduation Chin returned to Houston where he worked in and around the city’s art world for several years before moving to New York in 1983. During his New York years he achieved growing recognition for his paintings and sculptures, including a 1989 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and inclusion in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1994 exhibition “Black Male” with Night Rap and HOMEySEW 9 (1994), which consisted of a trauma treatment kit concealed in a 9mm handgun.
Chin gained wide notoriety in 1990 when John Frohnmayer, then director of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts, temporarily blocked a grant that had been awarded to Chin for his project Revival Field, a work of Land art that employed carefully chosen plants to pull toxic metals from the soil. Amid raging culture wars, Frohnmayer cited the “political tone” of Chin’s work as justification.1 The grant was reinstated following a vocal campaign by Chin’s art world supporters. Still, at that time, he was placed on a Village Voice “endangered artists” list.2
In 1992, Chin acquired a house and studio in Burnsville, North Carolina, where he could create larger works. In 2001, after nearly twenty years in New York, he relocated to Burnsville on a full-time basis. The move to North Carolina has not slowed Chin’s production, but it has made him less visible to a New York–focused art world.
Equally detrimental to his visibility has been his resistance to a consistent style. The eclectic nature of his work, both in terms of themes and mediums, contributed to the limited tour of the New Orleans retrospective. Manon Slome, cofounder and chief curator of the New York nonprofit No Longer Empty, which places art exhibitions in empty buildings, recalls that a sympathetic curator told her Chin’s problem was that his work was “all over the place.”3
The exhibition is an ambitious undertaking, involving the presentation of more than seventy objects and installations at the Queens Museum. These range from a 2005 bamboo replica of a bomb transformed into a fetish statue to a work that reimagines the entry gate to the home of basketball player LeBron James, which was defaced with racist graffiti last year, as a grapevine with basketballs substituting for grapes. The show also features Sea to See, a 2014 video installation that employs oceanographic data to create cinematic “portraits” of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Projected onto two hemispherical screens, the work depicts the deleterious warming the oceans have undergone over the last hundred years.
In keeping with the notion that Chin is, literally, all over the place, the exhibition reactivates Signal, a work commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the mid-nineties for the Broadway/Lafayette subway station. This work, which had fallen into disrepair, commemorates the fact that the station is beneath a trade route once used by Native Americans. In deference to tribal rules that discourage outsiders from using Native iconography, Chin invited Seneca tribe member Peter Jemison to create wall designs based on wampum patterns. These were realized in blue tiles that reference Delft ornamentation, creating an environment that represents the intermingling of Native American and European people during the colonial eras. Another element of the original station design comprised structural columns wrapped by conical fixtures that are meant to light up in emulation of signal fires when a train approaches. These lights, long inactive, will glow again during and after the exhibition.
“All Over the Place” also includes several new public works. These exemplify Chin’s spiraling creativity, in which one idea leads to another, and then yet another, all the while gaining complexity and significance. Chin’s current approach to public art has its roots in an existential crisis that followed his first retrospective at the Hirshhorn. Questioning his commitment to object-making, he immersed himself in free-range reading, eventually coming across an article in the Whole Earth Review, a magazine related to the seminal Whole Earth Catalog, which advocated ethical and environmentally friendly uses of technology. The article described the potential use of “hyper-accumulator” plants to cleanse toxic metals from the soil. Chin saw a way toward a different kind of art-making.
After more research, he connected with Rufus Chaney, a USDA agronomist who had been seeking funds unsuccessfully from the National Science Foundation for just such an experiment. Together they submitted a proposal to the NEA to test the notion at a contaminated Superfund site near Saint Paul, Minnesota, with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as institutional host. The project’s resemblance to a controlled scientific experiment with environmental implications gave NEA head Frohnmayer pause. Already under fire from Congress over grants for projects deemed sacrilegious by conservative critics, he pulled back the grant that the two had been awarded by a peer review panel.
In appeals to the NEA, Chin and his supporters successfully argued the case for the project as an artwork. They pointed out its genealogy, linking it to the tradition of Land art. Chin also enumerated the work’s culturally eclectic aesthetics: the mandala design of the field, its use of the Chinese symbols for Heaven and Earth, and the arrangement of plant markers based on the Mayan numerological system. Finally, he put Revival Field into the context of sculptural tradition, noting that he was essentially transforming his material, the earth, by carving it with plants.
In the years since, the scientific protocol Chin and Chaney developed for the Revival Field has been adapted and used, first in the four experiments they enacted together and then in other tests spearheaded by Chaney alone. The results have helped attract support for the science of “green remediation.” Within the art world, Revival Field has become a touchstone for artists seeking to restore damaged environments with natural solutions.
The ideas behind Revival Field took a new turn in 2006 when Chin visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Community groups alerted him to the high levels of lead in the soil of some of the most devastated neighborhoods. It turned out this problem predated Katrina, being the result of years of airborne lead from gasoline, paint, and other industrial emissions. Chin also discovered that some groups were searching for a solution to the problem using similar techniques to those pioneered in Revival Field. Aware from his own research that no lead accumulating plants exist, he decided to attack the problem from another angle. This prompted experiments with another protocol developed by the US military to trap lead in contaminated soil under a layer of organic phosphate. Chin found himself working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s energy response team at sites around the US to test this protocol.
But even more audaciously, Chin decided to confront the problem of lead in impoverished neighborhoods around the country. His educational and lobbying initiative Fundred Dollar Bill Project involves teaching young people about the problem of lead pollution and its potential solutions. Workshop participants also create hand-drawn $100 bills, dubbed Fundreds. Chin originally planned to present three million of these bills to Congress with a demand for an equal allotment of funding for lead remediation. The project has grown over the years as Chin has shifted his focus to the larger goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning altogether. Now he uses Fundreds (he has half a million and counting stored in Washington, D.C.) to mobilize local groups and urge policy makers to address the problem. During the run of “All Over the Place,” he is concentrating these efforts in New York’s five boroughs, capitalizing on the recent alarming discovery of lead in the water from drinking fountains in New York schools.
Flint Fit, which debuts at the Queens Museum exhibition, evolved from a visit to Flint, Michigan, as part of the Fundred project. At meetings with community groups, Chin often encountered huge piles of plastic water bottles. The containers had been discarded by residents who could no longer drink the water from their faucets. He offered to collect the waste and eventually left Flint with a fifty-foot trailer full of plastic bottles. His destination was Unifi, a recycling plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, that turns recycled plastic into polyester fabric.
Chin arranged for Unifi to transform the Flint bottles into cloth. Then he contacted New York–based designer Tracy Reese about creating a line of swim- and rainwear from this fabric. A Detroit native, Reese first came to national attention for having created the striking red and silver dress Michelle Obama wore when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Reese’s designs were realized by women employed at the Flint-based St. Luke N.e.w. Life Center for social services.
In a recent interview, Chin told me that Flint Fit is about “finding the strength in a city and using what is there. Flint has lost its manufacturing base, but this is a way to use art to help these women create a business.”4 The designs were presented in a fashion show at the opening of “All Over the Place,” and Chin is in discussion with various consultants to work up a business plan to sustain the project on an ongoing basis.
Flint Fit demonstrates Chin’s ability to use spectacle to bring attention to decidedly unglamorous social issues. This tendency is also evident in several projects he will unveil at Times Square in July as part of “All Over the Place.” These works examine the past, present, and future of Times Square through a high-tech extravaganza that involves both animatronic technology and augmented reality. Wake, commissioned by the Times Square Alliance, is a giant sculpture that combines a replica of the hull of a ship with a bleached whale skeleton. Inside the sculpture is a twenty-one-foot-high animatronic figurehead representing the nineteenth-century opera singer and celebrity Jenny Lind.
As viewers watch, this figure will raise her head toward the heavens and sigh. The figurehead on which this sculpture is based was once attached to the clipper ship USS Nightingale. (Lind was known as “the Swedish nightingale.”) That vessel had a complicated history: it took part in commercial ventures in Asia and was involved in the slave trade, and after requisition by the US Navy during the Civil War, participated in a blockade of the Confederacy. After the war it was repurposed for Arctic exploration and merchant trading, continuing its career for another thirty years.
Installed in Times Square, the replica figurehead embodies the entwined strands of commerce, entertainment, trade, and finance that helped build New York into a world-class city. The evocation of Jenny Lind is a nod to the cult of celebrity that so grips American culture and politics today. Chin sees Lind, whose delirious reception during her tour of the US is dramatized in the 2017 film The Greatest Showman, as a harbinger of contemporary celebrity worship. But Lind also serves here as a kind of seer: her sigh becomes a lamentation and a warning.
This becomes clear with Unmoored. Developed in collaboration with Microsoft engineers, this augmented reality project can be experienced only through a cell phone or tablet. Visitors who follow Lind’s upward gaze will view what Chin describes as a nautical traffic jam above their heads, suggesting a future in which New York City is underwater from the effects of climate change. They will see the underside of boats and other floating debris blocking out the sun. (A third Times Square project, still under development at the time of this writing, is titled Teem and will direct viewers’ attention to the vibrant but endangered life of tiny organisms deep below the ocean surface.)
Chin’s vision of New York’s future is pessimistic, but the project also has a more hopeful side. In our conversation, he cited various studies suggesting that our pervasive use of technology coincides with a reduction in human empathy as people become overloaded with stimuli and separated into siloed zones. With Unmoored, he hopes to show how the same technology can bring people together. He also hopes that the work’s entertaining aspect will draw people into a more serious consideration of the threats to our environment. “It’s almost like a P.T. Barnum thing,” he says. “Forty percent of Americans think climate change is not an issue. This engineered content can be used to provoke consciousness at this critical time.”
Like Flint Fit, this project has a genealogy that stretches back to Chin’s earlier work. The adoption of cutting-edge technology was also a feature of a 2000 piece titled Knowmad. For this piece, which is included in the Queens show, Chin worked with video game designers to create an interactive video installation that would foster greater understanding of Middle Eastern cultures. In place of the violent narrative that drives many popular video games, players manipulated a steering wheel to “drive” through a maze of rug designs based on actual patterns created by nomadic weavers, collecting hidden pomegranates along the way.
Wake’s use of popular communication mediums, meanwhile, contains echoes of Chin’s 1995–97 project In the Name of the Place. Instead of social media, that work exploited the then much larger reach of network television. In the Name of the Place was created by a group of students from Cal Arts and the University of Georgia (Chin had simultaneous teaching appointments at both schools). Under the name the GALA Committee they collaborated with the producers of Fox’s hit television show “Melrose Place” to embed politically subversive art objects in the sets for the show. These included such objects as a quilt printed with the chemical structure of RU-486, the “morning after” pill, or a Chinese takeout box inscribed with the Chinese characters for “Human Rights” and “Turmoil and Chaos.” Their fleeting presence in a scene was designed to induce an almost subliminal response in viewers who outnumbered the usual art gallery audience by many orders of magnitude. A sampling of these objects and episodes are included in the Queens show.
In interviews and his own writings, Chin has always taken a self-effacing approach to art. He frequently acknowledges his skepticism about the ability of art to create social change. Instead, he stresses its role as a catalyst that sets in motion various forces whose outcome is beyond the artist’s control. Lately he has also been talking about individual projects like the Revival Field, Flint Fit, and Unmoored as prototypes that he hopes will be of use to others. Musing on the title of this exhibition, he told me:
The phrase “all over the place” is often seen as a pejorative, but for me it’s not. This is about the variety of explorations you can do in a lifetime. If I had to be restricted to a single signature style, I don’t know what I would do. Maybe there has been a cost to my career in being all over the place, but a greater cost would be to lose all these ideas and possibilities.
1. John Frohnmayer, quoted in Kim Masters, “Art Chief Ignores Advice, Vetoes Grant: Environmental Project Criticized as Political,” Washington Post, Nov. 20, 1990, p. C1.
2. Cynthia Carr, “The Endangered Artists List,” Village Voice, Aug. 21, 1990, p. 84.
3. Once again, however, the path has been bumpy. In January, Laura Raicovich, Queens Museum director and Slome’s co-curator, abruptly announced her resignation from the museum over issues unconnected to Chin’s show. She was at odds with the museum’s board over the institution’s role in fostering political activism. The exhibition has gone forward with Raicovich joining No Longer Empty as co-curator.
4. All quotes from Chin from an interview with the author, New York, Jan. 19, 2018.