The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Wry installations and revelatory sculptures blend art-making and activism in Chin’s unique practice of transformation.
I have known about Mel Chin’s work since the days of Revival Field (1991–ongoing), a project in which he uses plants to remove toxic heavy metals from the soil. While Revival Field has become an iconic work involving art and science, Chin’s practice over the last thirty years is far more eclectic. He is an activist artist, who has made works that engage cross-cultural social and political concerns. Many require multidisciplinary collaborations and teamwork as well as long-term engagement. Alongside projects such as Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project (2006–ongoing), an initiative that started in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, he continues to make sculptures, drawings, performances, and installations.
In 2013, I invited Chin to install his sculpture Cabinet of Craving—a monumental Victorian cabinet in the form of a crouching spider—in my loft as part of Critical Practices Inc.’s 21ST.PROJECTS series of viewings. It was during this five-week period, as Chin met with curators, collectors, and foundations, that I got to know him as a charming full-time traveling salesman and raconteur, who is committed to approaching social and environmental issues in a constructive, often humorous manner.
TOTAL PROOF: The GALA Committee, an exhibition at Red Bull Studios this fall, revisits Chin’s collaborative work on the TV series Melrose Place from 1995 through 1997. In 2017, the community-based arts organization No Longer Empty will mount an independently initiated, post-retrospective survey of his work in New York, titled All Over the Place: No Escape.
Saul Ostrow At what point did you realize that you could link art and social issues?
Mel Chin I don’t think of it as just a link. It seems to be the only kind of art I make. But awareness is not enough, and I am compelled to make works that go beyond pointing out the issues. I grew up politically in the ’60s and ’70s, when we were actually optimistic, at least for a little while. I was making protest signage during that time, but works with the links you mention took shape during benefits for Amnesty International in the 1980s—Jilava Prison Bed, a prison bed for an incarcerated Romanian priest in 1982, and (Belief/Punishment), a sculpture of ruined books for the tortured leftist Pakistani poet Jam Saqi in 1986. I stayed away from agitprop since others were doing it very well already. I made political lamentations, which were loaded with materials and formally staged objects to lure the eye and mind into the content they were addressing. Works like The Opera of Silence, about China, Tibet, and the CIA, were presented at my first museum exhibition at the Hirschhorn Museum in 1989.
But after the opening of that show, I was in the elevator, and I heard a voice asking me: “What do you love?” And I thought, Woah, man, what do I love to do? I said to myself, “I love making things with my hands; I love doing research and destroying my preconceived notions.” And the weird voice said, “Okay, then stop.” I said, “What?” And the voice went, “Stop.” So, I listened to that voice, and that set up the conditions to conceive Revival Field, which linked art and ecological issues.
SO It’s a work that’s still ongoing, like many of your long-term projects. Did you ever make art for art’s sake?
MC I did do that. (laughter) Though, I would say, even if I tried to make art for art’s sake now, what drives a stake through its heart is my need to have a concept or idea behind what I’m going to do, otherwise it’s not worth picking up the tool, the brush, the pigment, the clay, or whatever to realize the work. I learned that early on, when I was an undergraduate at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee.
SO How did you end up going to art school in Nashville?
MC I won a college scholarship through a national high school art competition, and after I got into the state finals, I looked at the colleges I could choose, and one was Peabody College. A friend was going there so I just put it down on a lark. And wouldn’t you know it, I got a phone call: “Hey, you just won a nontransferable scholarship to our school. And you’re the first one out of this program ever to want to come here.” And I thought, Hmm.
You begin with a bit of talent and a bag full of delusions. I was doing landscape paintings almost in the Wyeth style—they were a little less skilled, and darker. I remember taking them to this painter, Arthur Orr, who did color-field, hard-edged acrylic paintings. He didn’t even look at the work, he just said, “I don’t look at shit.” I said, “Okay.” I didn’t take it as an insult. I started painting like him. And when he liked what I was doing, I said, “I’m done.” (laughter) This was a powerful lesson because it liberated me and made me see that such investigations were what it meant to be in school, and this was an opportunity of extreme proportions.
Then dire circumstances came upon me: I had to take a mandatory pottery class. I wanted to be an artist not a potter, but there I found the limitations of my skills, my so-called talent. I remember the Wisconsin-Zen attitude of my instructor, Bob Freagon, as he critiqued a student’s ugly unfired greenware, putting his finger on it and crushing it. Then bellowing, “If you’re going to make an ashtray, make a damn good one.” He took the pieces and threw them into the slop bucket. You know, his action removed my misconception that everything I did was art. And I started getting serious. I quit making paintings and drawings for classes and became the janitor of the pottery shop, so I could be there 24/7. Library time got me deeper into dirt; I was consumed with mud and clay. Devotion to the medium centered me with Chinese philosophical roots, tossed me way out to prehistoric Japanese Jomon forms, and brought me back to rest with a potter named Beatrice Wood. And through her, Marcel Duchamp. And I said, “Who’s this?”
The eclectic behavior of a conceptual artist released me from the rules. I no longer had to follow any path except the traces of a poet or two. The despair of Townes Van Zandt, the brave genius of Muhammad Ali, the brilliance of James Baldwin, the collective strength of women, the criminal behavior of politicians—all this led me to think that art for art’s sake is a yoke; you have to throw it off to get to work.
SO So that’s when you found that you could operate in the margins?
MC Yes, I understood that I could operate in the margins, but I was wary of being placed there by anything in the center that maintains power by colonizing its perimeter.
SO Explain that a little bit.
MC While living in New York, I met with Godzilla, the Asian artists group. Eugenie Tsai and Byron Kim were part of it. I gave a little presentation of my work but it wasn’t about identity politics. I might have shown them a few sociopolitical critiques and Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand (1987), an investigation into alchemic, mythic, and scientific structures in Western and Eastern philosophies to get to the origins of words, materials, and forms. Someone might have asked me, “Where are your roots in your work?” And I might have said that these were Texan-Asian thangs…where ruts cut deep. Seriously, I wanted to be able to compete in a world of ideas. I didn’t want to be put into a box where I had to make “edgy” work related to my identity to be in an acceptable margin of a museum trend. If being that type of artist was how I would gain access to the big house, then I wasn’t going to do it.
SO Let’s talk about you growing up in Houston.
MC In the Fifth Ward, an African American neighborhood.
SO How did your parents end up in Houston?
MC My grandfather was an illegal in New York’s Chinatown. He came here with a “paper name” to escape poverty and to serve as a musician for the bachelor society created by the US Chinese Exclusion Act. Then he bought papers for my father to come over in 1939, to escape the genocidal conditions of the Japanese occupation. When the war was declared, US recruiters told my father, “If you join the army, you can become a citizen, and you’ll be able to get a Chinese wife.” My father joined up and ended up back in China in the motor pool of the Flying Tigers along Burma Road. Afterward, he came back to New York City, with my mom; they had two sons and toiled in the Chinatown laundries to make a life. Some of his Chinese American San Antonio army buddies said, “Hey, man, come to Texas and get yourself a grocery store, and we’ll show you the ropes.” He brought the whole family down with him. I popped out in Houston. They found a store. My father, who liked Chinese/English puns, renamed the store Wholesome (ho-sim meaning “good heart” in Chinese) Food Market. There I first witnessed violence. One of my earliest memories is of two white winos in a bloody battle. I also saw racism firsthand. With white flight occurring, one of the last remaining white dudes in the neighborhood came to insult and threaten my father.
Later on, I came to understand the incredible spirit that my father generated in that neighborhood. If you want to talk about where my social consciousness comes from, I may have absorbed it from him. We were giving our testimony at his funeral, and this man in a flashy suit strode up, nudged my younger brother off the stage and said, “I can see I am in the minority today. I’m Reverend Albert Lemons. Mr. Benny gave me my first job, taught me about responsibility. Mr. Benny gave my family food and credit. Try getting that at Walmart! He never once asked us to pay on time. We paid when we could. So, if I’m here today, and my family survived our poverty, it’s because of the spirit of this great man.” So we were looking at this guy and thinking, That’s why we were always broke! (laughter)
SO So when you decided to start making work, why didn’t you make it about your identity?
MC My identity is in all my stuff, man! If you look for it—like the way I space images in a work is more in line with the aesthetic of a Chinese painting. But my nature won’t let me leave out the funk of a tune—the ring and rhythm of work. I incorporate all the legacies I’ve been lucky to absorb, but I’m always ready to bust it up, Zen-style. It’s reflected in my contradictory approach to things, which I inherited from my father and my strong-willed mother. If you understand what I’m after, you’ll see that making art is an investigation and a tool I use to reflect on and criticize my life. I look at artmaking as an axe to dismantle delusions that have built up, though sometimes even this is not enough.
SO So in that sense the work is always about identity.
MC To be an artist is to be in a state of becoming. That’s what I’ve come to realize. For me, it’s the only place; I don’t recommend it to anybody else. (laughter) The state of becoming is my lot in life. It allows me to move in many directions and go places I don’t necessarily expect or want to. Lately, I’ve been taking on the voice of the Other to deflect expectations, to survive, and possibly to upset a stereotype-saturated world. I don’t know what I’m doing next.
Let me tell you a story about delusion: It’s the late ‘80s. I’m down in Texas weaving a cornucopia for this work called The Extraction of Plenty from What Remains: 1823–. The work is about foreign policy and the history of American domination in Central America. I’m into the alchemy of materials; they all have this intense meaning—mahogany, banana, dirt, coffee… and goat blood! I have this idea referring to Amalthea the she-goat goddess and the cracked horn. So I need a place where they’re slaughtering goats, and I find it in some illegal operation on the edges of the city. I go in with my art materials, man—I’m no longer the Chin boy in a black and Jewish community; I’m an artist from New York! I’m standing next to a pile of viscera in an inch of coagulating blood, and I’ve got my brushes, my paint bucket, my coffee, my dirt, everything’s ready. And there’s this one slaughterer with a demonic presence—he’s really torturing these goats. I’m trying to get the blood to make my art. We make eye contact, and he takes an animal, rips its throat, and throws it at me. I duck, and he’s aiming at the basket and breaks the cornucopia that I had brought with me to spill blood on. Then he cuts another goat, and throws that one at me. I grab the animal, and I start spraying its life over the piece. Another one, and another one.
I stumbled out of there, physiologically and psychologically spent. Up until then, I had thought, I’m a pretty cool dude. I had thought, I’m talented, I’m a pacifist, I’m an antiwar person, I’ve protested, I’ve done all these things. But when I made eye contact with this guy, I realized that it was all a delusion, that I’m not the rarified artist who’s alienated from society. I’m not special. I’m linked with the cruelty of the world. If I was going to make art to bear witness, I needed to take a good look at myself and direct that energy for political critique also toward myself.
SO What role does chance play in your projects? In the years I’ve known you, the work never seemed programmatic. There’s always an anecdote involving a chance occurrence.
MC Yes. It is said you come into the world bare-assed, and when you leave, you might have a suit on. That’s why I’m wearing this suit. (laughter) But for this life, sometimes it’s a poorly calculated leap into a mess you should have stayed out of that provides the right lesson. If you survive chance, then you might want to embrace it as something that teaches you. WithOperation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project, I was going to New Orleans to see if I could help.
SO Give me a synopsis of the New Orleans project.
MC Well, the New Orleans project is now a national project. It’s not dedicated to lead in soil, or lead in water, but lead in the blood of children. It’s a two-fold burden on so many of the poor, unsuspecting populations throughout America. An affected person will be burdened forever.
I went down after Katrina to help. I had heard that people were using “my” Revival Fieldmethods—using sunflowers to pull lead out of the soil. That bothered me, because sunflowers were not used in Revival Field and we knew that no plants could uptake lead. Bogus solutions giving false hope to people who had been screwed over—it just ain’t right. So going there was also an investigation. After speaking with people about what they had gone through, I was moved by their survival, their suffering, the magnitude of their loss. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt inadequate to respond as an artist in a meaningful way. I took on the belief that the only creative response was one of equal magnitude to what people had endured.
So I kept returning to New Orleans, to research and figure out what to offer, and that’s when I reconnected with a researcher I knew, Dr. Howard Mielke. I learned from Howard that up to 50 percent of inner-city children were poisoned with lead before the storm. I asked, “How much money is dedicated to solving this horrific problem?” His answer was, “None.” So, I said, “Well, then we’ll have to make that money. It doesn’t have to be real money, but it should be just as valuable.” The children can’t vote—they don’t have a voice politically, but they can draw. I wanted to get a project going where the most threatened population, the kids, could have a method to represent the value of their expression in a form that everyone would acknowledge—money. All the toxic water problems from New Orleans to Flint are bound up with currency, money, cash. I thought, If the kids drew individual bills, one per child, like votes that would be collected, they could have presence and substance, and they could be used to represent the interest in not being poisoned by a neurotoxic element: lead!
This is a project that I knew I could never accomplish alone but one that we, collectively, could deliver. It’s about amplifying people’s creative voices so they can be heard in every American city that’s suffering from the same issue.
SO How many of your projects result in organizations or structures that remain? As you know, one of the significant critiques of social-practice artists is that they come in and do a project; it is publicized, but nothing gets left behind with the community. The art part is that it’s shown in a museum, or written about in an art magazine.
MC I guess I’m doing social practice wrong. (laughter) Each project is based on an arc that eventually must lead to transformation. We (the Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill team) didn’t have a preconceived structure, but we now hold the trust of almost half a million people. Nearly 500,000 individual drawings, 50 million dollars worth of drawings, have been made. And they are valuable because we taught every one of the people who drew a Fundred Dollar Bill what to watch out for, how to make themselves safer from lead poisoning. Our project is headed to Flint, and to DC, where there is another case of lead poisoning through water. We can effectively link people with policy workers and nonprofits. We don’t do lobbying but we can use and orchestrate the beauty of cooperation in order to actually call for a transformative policy to emerge. Public projects like this one need time to build trust. They need to be adaptive but should end up in the street if they began there. I never start community projects with an exhibition in mind. Museums that show this work can’t just show the evidence; they have to join the action.
SO Do you differentiate between what’s called social practice and what you do in your public projects?
MC Making a project like Fundred is all about critical re-engagement—finding out what doesn’t work and reengaging so that it does work. It is an evolutionary process, the same way I approach making objects, finessing form and material to get to a righteous result. But for a public project, the materials are time, attitudes, political situations, horrible conditions, delays, and disappointments to overcome. When it does come together, there should be an elevated, poetic presence.
Recently, I gave an award presentation to Shelley Rubin and Donald Rubin, two great patrons of the arts. I snagged a quote by Lewis Mumford about the function of a city and the conversion of “dead matter into the living symbols of art.” And I said, “Well, that’s cool, and as collectors you should continue to collect and amass and protect these amazing living symbols of art made from all this dead matter. But the materials of our time are ideas that matter, justice that matters, black lives that matter—the materials are more ephemeral, but they do not even begin to be less important as far as things to transform into living symbols of art.” It’s always been that way, in truth, but whether we understand that or not, I don’t know. I’m into the poetry of a whole project emerging, the arc.
SO So let’s go from Fundred to the Sahara.
MC Oh, the Sahara project—still in process. Let me summarize the story: I get a call from Kirby Gookin and Robin Kahn, out of the blue: “Could you come to the Sahara?” I said, “What are you talking about? The Western Sahara?” Kirby explains, “There’s a human rights arts festival in the middle of this refugee camp in the Western Sahara. I gave a talk about activist art, and I showed them the Fundred project. And they said, ‘Give us the guy with the money.’” I said, “Okay, I’ll come.” When I got there, I realized why they were interested—they have no currency of their own. They have no capital. They have no economy. They depend on—
SO —trade, bartering.
MC Trading goods or charity, UN shipments. I always tell the story of going for the first time to the Sahara. On the jetway, in Newark, I pass by a bank advertisement that announces that 0.3 percent of the Saharan sun can provide for all of Europe’s power needs. Think of the potential, it blurbs before concluding: We do. We go through Spain and Algeria and drive in a convoy into this camp in the middle of the night. We end up in a compound. I can’t see, it’s a dark night—a rug is unfurled, and embers of charcoal are burning. Our host is making us tea. And that’s my immersion in this place. I sleep under the stars of the Sahara. I wake up in a destitute camp, and there is no fucking bank. There’s no investment. And no apparent potential.
I think, What is needed in the West is an alternative to an economy based on oil and gold. And that economy can be based on what Western Saharans have an abundance of. So while I was there, I began working on this premise with folks who might not have political power or a local economy, but do have a strong will to survive. I reasoned with some leaders, “Your men fought an invading Morocco to a standstill. Your women built schools and clinics in the refugee camps and generated a 100-percent literacy rate. You have improved the childhood survival rate from one out of ten to nine out of ten. You know how to survive. And now, you can create the model that we need in the US to survive in the age of global warming.” A Bank of the Sun is what we started to focus on. That’s how it worked. It wasn’t me saying, “Let me help you.” It was more like, “You’re sitting where you could help us.”
SO You’re of the generation in which Joseph Beuys emerged. Interestingly, in discussions about social practice, Beuys rarely comes up. The history of social practice that includes you, the Harrisons, and many others is somewhat erased.
MC You know, I gave a talk at the Ringling Museum called “My Relation to Joseph Beuys Is Overrated,” which included a project that merged social practice and covert military methodology. My artist lecture is reprinted in Gene Ray’s book Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy. I admit to an osmotic relationship that isn’t in direct lineage to Beuys. I believe that the figurehead status of a singular artist has to end.
This will be explored at Red Bull Studios in New York in September. It will be a GALA Committee exhibition, the project on which I collaborated with artists, students, TV producers, and set designers. As a collective, we anonymously inserted images on primetime television for two seasons (1995–97). We basically made the art props for the background scenes of Aaron Spelling’s Melrose Place. Being from an immigrant family, I learned American culture and how to navigate society largely through television. It couldn’t be escaped. Television had, and still has, the capacity to nurture a population into being insecure—about their appearances, their relationships—in order to sell soap and other commodities. This is true commercial power over culture. The title of the project was In the Name of the Place and its aim was to insert alternative and independent ideas within television’s tightly controlled format.
SO So you see yourself as an agent? A subversive?
MC An agent of transformation, maybe. Changing things connotes too much power. I’m not interested in having that. That’s why I say that a catalytic structure that creates options is more important than change. There’s too much dogma for me in change. If I can be a stimulus, I’m content. With these projects, you have to see yourself and where you fit. I’ve critically analyzed how I have to evolve.
SO When you started your work, there was no such thing as social practice. Now, there are graduate programs in social practice. There are museums funding social practice projects. How do you feel about that?
MC What? Where can I apply? (laughter) I don’t work from definitions, but I think institutional support can be very good; it depends on the institution’s capacity to follow through and maintain support for the artist and the communities involved. I hope that some transcendent projects will emerge from this support. You know, it’s similar to when multiculturalism became a paycheck, or a way of raising funds for institutions—I hope it is not a fickle trend. During the Black Male show at the Whitney in 1995, I remember standing in the lobby with the director as he noted all the kids coming through that had been bussed in for the show. He said, “Isn’t this great?” It was. Then I asked, “Will you be bussing them in for the next show?” I hope he did.
SO While any and all possible funders, including foundations, have supported your work, have any of your major projects been museum instigated?
MC Well, some were, but the point is, Can the institutions evolve into better players? If the artists are truly taking social practice seriously, the onus is on the institutions to alter their persona and their capacities for support. It’s not the same game anymore. The artists are thinkers and experimenters but the institutions have an opportunity to evolve in a radical fashion and embrace the changing landscape of art practice.
SO Okay, this leads us to the elephant in the room. None of the museums in New York took your retrospective, right? Like Courbet or Manet, you decided that you were going to set up a big tent in front of the academy and go, “I don’t need you.” (laughter)
MC Well, the museums are doing pretty well, so they actually might not need me! But, we need all voices to elevate the dialogue, to see where art can go. That’s what our practices are about. As for the show, it’s just a bit of chutzpah, right?
SO We’re talking about a half-a-million dollar, self-constructed, post-retrospective retrospective—that’s big.
MC It’s going to be a comprehensive survey called All Over the Place: No Escape. It will have all kinds of discrete objects, surrealist projects, projections of things to come and others that weren’t realized. It will show the complexity of a life’s work, and inevitably this will include social engagement. It’s not all a logical progression. As the title All Over the Place implies, it roams, taking up different phases of my life. I’ve allowed myself the freedom to investigate many things, to repurpose the critique of my own imagination. I tend to make objects, produce installations, do drawings, cut up old paintings while simultaneously doing very intense work about lead poisoning in children. It might not be the market discourse, but there are plenty of folks who are conceptually invested in seeing a show like this come around.
SO And you’re also doing the Sahara project.
MC The Potential Project is on simmer and will be taken up again after political shifts both there and here transpire. I will need some realignment with the new Western Saharan ambassador to the US.
In the meantime, I’m staying busy with The TIE that BINDS: the MIRROR of the FUTURE in Los Angeles. It’s a post-earthwork land art project where a temporary public artwork in form of a garden initiates a permanent earthwork that adds up to 512 unique water-saving gardens in people’s yards all over the city—reflecting a future drought-resistant, collective, landscape.
SO You’ve consistently referred to your work as activism. Is this survey to be seen in that context? Is your post-retrospective survey an intervention?
MC No, man… It is a reintroduction! I haven’t had a big show here for twenty-five years. I will lay out my work so my peers can unleash an intervention on me! Some of my most essential thinking occurred during the two decades I lived in New York. I’d love to rekindle some of these conversations. I think it’s a critical opportunity for me to share some obscure works, thematic addictions, research collages, and to meet younger artists on terms that are not predicated by commercial systems. The mantra of No Longer Empty, the organization that’s helping to mount this survey, is to work within the community. For me, there’s nothing better or more contentious than a community of artists from New York City!
Saul Ostrow is an independent critic and curator, and a BOMB contributing editor. In 2010, he founded the nonprofit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical discourse.