Mel Chin’s Social Surrealism

Lamentations and Revivals

Mel Chin’s social surrealism.


Artists don’t make news headlines very often. For Mel Chin, it happened in November 1990, with one that read: U.S. Arts Chief Overturns an Approval. In the midst of the controversies that had been roiling the National Endowment for the Arts over the previous year or so—first for its support of exhibitions by the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, then for its grants to several performance artists, including Karen Finley and Holly Hughes—the NEA’s chairman at the time, John Frohnmayer, took the unprecedented step of revoking Chin’s grant, which had already been approved by both a peer panel and the advisory National Council on the Arts.

What was strange was that, unlike the commotion over Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and the rest, there were no hot-button issues of sexuality or religion at stake with Chin’s work. Instead, his grant involved a seemingly arcane topic in plant biology: phytoremediation, or the ability of plants to clean contaminated soil. Chin’s grant, in the category of “Artists’ Projects: New Forms,” was for a work called Revival Field, a sort of earthwork or land-art piece developed in collaboration with an agronomist at the US Department of Agriculture, Rufus L. Chaney. A section of toxic landfill was to be fenced into geometrically defined zones, a circle within a square, and planted with alpine pennycress (Thlaspi caerulescens), a rather unphotogenic plant known as a “hyperaccumulator”—that is, a plant capable of growing in soil that has been contaminated by heavy metals and extracting the toxins from it. In other words, Chin’s proposal was a science experiment in the guise of an artwork, or vice versa.

Not only was Revival Field unlikely to affront anyone’s moral sensibility; it was also unlikely to be seen by pretty much anyone, given that the site was off-limits to the public. Chin and his assistants were required to undergo 40 hours of training in the handling of hazardous waste before setting to work there. In this case, it seems, the worry for Frohnmayer wasn’t that the project might give offense; it was really that old chestnut “But is it art?” translated into contemporary bureaucratese (being of “questionable artistic merit”).

The idea that a work could possess what Chin called an “invisible aesthetic”—though familiar enough to aficionados of 1970s conceptual art—might have seemed like a case of the emperor’s new clothes; and the idea that the removal of toxic material from soil could be compared to carving in traditional sculpture—the removal of stone or wood from a block, although in this case “the material being approached is unseen and the tools will be biochemistry and agriculture”—might have sounded sophistical. It probably was sophistical, come to think of it. All the better. Chin practices what the poet and scholar Lewis Hyde, among others, has preached: that the artist must be a trickster. As such, he appears, Hyde wrote, not only “as a messenger but as a thief, the one who steals from the gods the good things that humans need if they are to survive in this world.”

Good trickster that he is, Chin somehow managed to charm Frohnmayer into backing down; Revival Field received its $10,000 grant and was duly installed at the Pig’s Eye landfill near St. Paul, Minnesota, where it remained for three years. Scientifically, the project seems to have been something of a success: According to Peter Boswell, a former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, “since the installation of the St. Paul Revival Field, phytoremediation has become an increasingly studied and applied area of scientific investigation, a field in which Chaney has remained an active leader.”

Artistically, Revival Field might at first seem something of a detour in Chin’s career, which has been concisely mapped by curators Laura Raicovich and Manon Slome in the exhibition “Mel Chin: All Over the Place,” on view at the Queens Museum in New York City through August 12. As the exhibition shows, an invisible aesthetic hasn’t often been this artist’s goal: Much of his work is meticulously crafted and eye-catching on a monumental scale. I first got to know it (and him) through Chin’s 1987 New York exhibition, “Operation of the Sun Through the Cult of the Hand,” a series of sculptures based on ancient Chinese and Greek cosmologies and modern astronomy that seemed to propose a half-archaic, half-futuristic, and mostly enigmatic model of the solar system. His use in these works—also presented at the Queens Museum—of what he calls “traditional to arcane materials and chemicals” showed him to be a rare sort of conceptualist, one whose ideas are mostly articulated through a dialogue with matter by way of the hand. He makes objects that question our relation to them, perhaps bearing in mind André Breton’s admonition: “So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life—real life, I mean—that in the end this belief is lost. Man, that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use.”

Yet it’s hard to identify any particular piece as typical of Chin’s multifarious oeuvre. If I had to cite a typically memorable one, it might be the 2012 sculpture Cabinet of Craving, a 14-foot-tall spider made of black-stained wood, like a grand piano, whose body is a Victorian-style cabinet and whose glass belly reveals an antique English teapot on a silver tray. The image of a giant spider makes one think of Louise Bourgeois, who also put this figure to spectacular use. But whereas Bourgeois’s subject is always the family—though with an awareness of the personal as political (her spider was, she perhaps surprisingly claimed, “an ode to my mother”)—Chin’s sculpture attempts to respond to history on a grand scale.

Cabinet of Craving is an allegory for imperialism—in Chin’s words, “a hybrid monster born out of addictions and manipulations of empires, in this case, the Victorian English craving for tea and porcelain, the Chinese desire for silver and the insidious and illegal trade of narcotics that [led] to the Opium War” of the mid-19th century. Any resonance with our culture’s continuing love affair with opiates and the profits to be made from them is strictly tacit and undoubtedly intentional. China, which was forced through gunboat diplomacy to accept imports of opium in the 19th century, is today the largest source of illicit fentanyl on the US market.

A sculpture like Cabinet of Craving, with its dense concatenation of symbol and reference, appropriation and artistry, is designed to be striking enough to command your attention and hermetic enough to keep you puzzling over it. Its enigmatic quality suggests that it comes from a surrealist lineage, and I can’t help recalling Breton’s idea that surrealist images, like those from opium, arise spontaneously and “despotically.” But where the images of the surrealists were supposed to point inward to the unconscious, Chin’s point outward, to society, history, and the environment. Maybe he should be called a social surrealist.

The blatant theatricality of Cabinet of Craving seems a long way from the invisible aesthetic of Revival Field (represented in Queens by a diorama). But even in Chin’s most spectacular pieces, there’s also much that is hidden or invisible. And a walk through the Queens Museum made me wonder whether the most basic difference isn’t that Revival Field was fundamentally optimistic in its bearing, fueled by the hope that the poisons we’ve poured into the earth could be extracted from it, and by natural means, so as to regain an earlier state of wholesomeness. That optimism is absent in much of Chin’s later work: There’s no plant for removing the toxins “born out of addictions and manipulations of empires” from society the way alpine pennycress can absorb zinc and cadmium from the soil. Although he still undertakes activist projects whose aim is to remediate some of the ills we face, most of Chin’s works are, as he calls them, “lamentations”—beautifully articulated gestures of mourning over the damage that we’ve done as much as calls to undo it. And yet the question is always on the table: Can we kick our old habits?

Sometimes the warning of danger comes in a package so witty that it takes away the sting of admonition. The Elementary Object (1993) is a briarwood pipe of such refined form that I’d imagine any smoker would like to take a puff on it. But as René Magritte said: “This is not a pipe.” That’s a fuse cord coming out of it, and if Chin is to be believed, the chamber is filled with blasting powder—not a pipe but a pipe bomb. Tobacco, like opium, is the kind of poison an individual can choose to forgo, but the toxins that become part of our environment—land, water, air; homes and workplaces—can’t be avoided.

If I had to choose the most formally concise and beautiful piece in “All Over the Place,” it would probably be Study Lamp (2018), a work that’s far from invisible but still easy to miss, since at the Queens Museum it isn’t installed in any of the rooms devoted to Chin’s show; instead, it’s in a room housing part of a collection of Tiffany lamps and windows amassed by the Austrian-born collectors Egon and Hildegard Neustadt between 1935 and 1984. (According to Egon Neustadt’s obituary in The New York Times, “He said he bought every type of lamp that Louis Comfort Tiffany made, even if he did not like it”—the true mark of an obsessive collector.) On a tall, gracile bronze base that rivals anything of Tiffany’s for art-nouveau fantasy sits a stained-glass lampshade in the shape of a human brain. Its color pattern is derived from a study of the effects of lead poisoning on the brain; the areas colored orange-red are the portions most damaged. Since the glass in Tiffany’s lamps is leaded, we can wonder whether Chin’s sculpture represents the condition of the workers who handled them day after day for years.

Lead poisoning is a recurrent concern in Chin’s work. Lead Point Portraits (2013)—three big, stunningly creepy drawings made with lead on recycled file folders—shows the faces of three men whose lives Chin believes might have been affected by exposure to the element. The only one you’re likely to recognize is the central figure, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose famously saturnine character, poor health, and deafness have been controversially ascribed to lead poisoning. The less familiar faces flanking the composer turn out to be a couple of contemporary Americans from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: Albert Dunlap, better known as Chainsaw Al, the business executive who cultivated a reputation for saving failing businesses through ruthless downsizing (it later transpired that the supposed turnarounds were really just accounting frauds); and William Gardner, who in 1992 set fire to a house he’d just burglarized in order to prevent one of the children in it from identifying him; the young girl perished in the flames, along with four of her siblings. Gardner’s public defenders called for clemency on the grounds of his “developmental disorders since birth and brain impairment from lead poisoning,” but he was executed by the State of Ohio in 2010.

An artist for whom lead poisoning is a recurrent theme or metaphor would inevitably be drawn to consider the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. For a new work, Flint Fit (2018), Chin has eschewed the impulse toward lamentation, instead rekindling the imaginatively ameliorative spirit that animated Revival Field. On a visit to the beleaguered city, he took note of the volume of plastic water bottles being used by its residents. Chin’s response was immediate: “I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with those plastic bottles? Could you give them to me?’” His scheme was to have the plastic transformed into thread for fabric. He recruited fashion designer Tracy Reese—a Michigan native best known for having Michelle Obama as a steady customer—to design a collection of rain- and swimwear that could be made using the polyester material. The garments were assembled by participants in an employment-preparation program in Flint.

The elegantly rough-hewn garments are on view in Queens in an installation that encompasses the museum’s relief map of the New York City water-supply system created for the 1939 World’s Fair. Over this map, Chin has installed a hanging sculpture, The Water and the City Above (2018), which maps out the Flint River in relation to the city, creating a parallelism that reminds us that, with bad governance and unchecked exploitation, a catastrophe similar to Flint’s could happen anywhere—Flint’s problems are ours, too. As modeled on mannequins scattered around this space, Reese’s designs look ready to ship to your local department store, but they are prototypes that have not been mass-produced.

The process as a whole is a kind of prototype itself, a pilot project or proof of concept demonstrating that a trickster artist’s imaginative approach to everyday problems can help sidestep some of them. In this case, the underlying disaster of Flint’s poisoned water supply is unaffected, but Chin has succeeded in showing that at least the knock-on effect of having to use bottled water can be addressed. The plastic, anyway, that made up 90,000 water bottles has been prevented from dispersing into the environment.

But polyester garments, like everything else, will eventually be discarded and end up in the land or sea. That’s not a problem that would have ordinarily occurred to me, but the experience of traversing the range of Chin’s work in Queens primed me to look at everything from its dark side.

Even what might seem like one of Chin’s most calmly meditative pieces has warning signs built into it. Sea to See (2014) consists of a pair of massive glass hemispheres with steel-grid frameworks facing each other from opposite walls; within these great transparent bubbles, we see the projected imagery of an underwater world. For an exhibition commemorating the centenary of the Panama Canal, Chin chose to focus not on the canal itself, but rather on the two oceans it artificially connects. So the imagery on one side comes from the Atlantic, on the other from the Pacific. It’s mostly pretty hazy and pleasantly floaty.

You’d probably have to be better informed than I am to recognize that you might sometimes be seeing endangered species or plastic debris drifting by. But the experience of being in this space is pleasurable enough that you want to spend time with it; and, with time, you might start to wonder in a more specific way just what it is you’re seeing. And once you do, you might start to ask yourself, as I did, how much of our old polyester clothing—which is no more biodegradable than our empty water bottles—ends up in these seas.

This raises a question about how information works in a discursively based practice like Chin’s. So many of his works are so larded with meaning that the meaning becomes, paradoxically, hard to extract. You have to resort to the wall texts for clarification—or, if you’re lucky, to the artist himself, who is his own most eloquent explicator. (Watch one of his many interviews on YouTube for confirmation of this.) And once you delve into the layers of meaning that Chin builds into his work, you might start to wonder what’s left for the viewer to do but reconstruct the artist’s deeper intention.

Chin’s works are not, after all, clues to the artist’s thought process so much as prompts for further discussion. He doesn’t necessarily imagine an individual viewer, as most artists implicitly do, but rather a community. Addressed as such, his lamentations are not, finally, as grim or pessimistic as they might sometimes seem—and they do connect to his demonstrative projects for ameliorative action, such as Revival Field or Flint Fit. The vividly disturbing image that reminds us how bad things are, how much has been destroyed, is meant to be a springboard for thinking harder and more creatively about what can still be done to salvage our poisoned situation. That’s a kind of thinking that can only be done collectively.

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