Mel Chin sat in the center of a room in the New Orleans Museum of Art pasted floor to ceiling with 542 surrealist scenes he'd arranged from Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia. Finishing up an interview on the eve of the opening of his first-ever retrospective, Rematch, which includes more than 70 works of a lifetime of art, the artist looked dapper and pleased, crediting the museum's curator of contemporary art, Miranda Lash, for the show's exquisite use of space. "It's her show," he said smiling.
The Mel Chin exhibit opens this weekend at NOMA, and it's the first retrospective of the Houston native's diverse output of work. In one room, abstract and cumbersome looking planets revolve around a wheel-like sun, reflecting both their Eastern and Western associations, but in the next waits a video game to be played with wheel and gas pedal, developed with the help of programmers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and based on the rug patterns of nomadic peoples.
On the other side of that space there's a television with scenes from Melrose Place. For two years Chin snuck hidden, political symbols into the background of the show. When two characters get in a fight and tear down a random picture on the wall, for example, the random picture is actually one of the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va. Or when another character learns she's pregnant, she cuddles under a quilt stitched with the chemical compound for the abortion pill. From painting to images of public art to sculpture and video, there seems to be nothing Chin cannot do.
"He’s been called a conceptual artist, and he is a conceptual artist, but I think people use that word also because his output is so diverse," says Lash, who met Chin in 2008 and has been working on the retrospective at NOMA ever since. "He works in almost every medium you can imagine."
(More photos from the exhibit and conversations with Chin and Lash below the jump)
Lash points out, though, that even seemingly unconnected works are linked first by beauty, then by an ever-prevalent theme of social justice. "He's intensely driven by research," says Lash. "He's driven by a sense of social justice and the fact that certain voices need to be represented that are not always. And that art can play a role in providing solutions to problems. Awareness is not enough. In his mind the real difference is providing a solution, or bringing the elements together than can lead to a solution."
Lash says Chin refers to beauty as a Venus flytrap: it lures you in and then the artist can "get you with all his subversive ideas."
One such Venus flytrap hangs in the great hall of the museum, before visitors even arrive to the exhibit. Titled "The Strange Flower of Democracy," the bamboo sculpture is beautiful. It's also meant to represent a bomb.
"It’s long, it’s made of bamboo, it’s an interesting material," Lash explains. "So you can take it on that level, but if you want to know more about the layers of meaning behind the piece, that also can enhance the interpretation. And with Mel Chin, there’s layers upon layers. He really believes there’s meaning embedded in every material that he chooses, meaning embedded in every form he operates with."
"The piece, in Mel’s mind, is a commentary on the different aspects of democracy, which is a value that we prize in America, and we should...but there’s always costs involved with every system," she adds. "Mel thought a lot about the legacy of democracy in the U.S. We have created a lot of bodily harm in the spread of democracy, or ‘preservation’ of democracy."
And it goes deeper. Chin chose bamboo to reference the Vanuatu Cargo Cult from the 1940's. U.S. cargo planes regularly landed on the the South Pacific island of Vanuatu to bring supplies to the warfront during World War II. The Polynesians began to build bamboo effigies to encourage more planes, seeing that each time a plane arrived, so too did food and supplies. They began worshipping the planes as a thing of a spritual significance.
Each piece has a similar onion-like unfolding, revealing not just well-researched art, but also a profound heart.
The end of the exhibit makes especially clear that Chin is not just interested in raising awareness of ecological and political woes; he's interested in putting a step forward to make permanent change. Chin launched Operation Paydirt after a visit to New Orleans in 2006. He was disturbed by the levels of violence he witnessed in St. Roch, and he learned about the problem of lead poisoning in the city.
"He was quick to point out the connection, which is proven by science, between childhood lead poisoning and learning disabilities, increased violent behavior," says Lash.
Chin worked with local scientists to explore the issue and learned from Tulane University's Dr. Howard Mielke that it would cost $3 million to cover New Orleans with a layer of clean soil. He couldn't give that much money, but he could make it. Soon school children around the country were making "Fundred" dollar bills out of construction paper and Crayola supplies, each representing a $100 bill. His goal is to gather 3 million Fundred dollar bills and bring them to the steps of the U.S. Congress to exchange one-for-one for real cash.
The exhibit, which is on view until May 25 (OK, so maybe you don't have to go this weekend) closes with a chance to draw a Fundred dollar bill, harping on a theme Lash points out is especially important to Chin's work: for people to be able to see the difference they've made in the world. The exhibit, therefore, doesn't end with Chin — It ends with a wall of colorful, crayon-adorned bills.