Listening to the artist Mel Chin discuss his process is like falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. In a few sentences, he’ll cite Derrida and language, a clinical study linking lead poisoning to violent behavior, and the mid-nineteenth century British Opium Wars in China. The tongue-in-cheek title of his new multi-decade survey at the Queens Museum, co-organized by No Longer Empty, is All Over the Place. The title certainly references the hungry, circuitous, sometimes baroque workings of Chin’s mind, but more than that, it points to Chin’s ambitious process. Chin takes the tools of European modernism — science, geography, encyclopedic knowledge, history — and inverts them to address modernity’s more violent products: war, colonialism, resource extraction, and ecological collapse.
The walls in the first gallery of the exhibition, true to this mission, are covered with pages from “The Funk & Wag from A to Z “(2012). Chin cut up pages from the Universal Standard Encyclopedia by Funk & Wagnalls and pasted them into funny, surreal, dadaist collages on black paper. Standing in a room full of these reconfigured photos of monuments, people, statues, scientific objects, and animals from around the world is like walking through a museum of natural history while on acid. Animals are given Buddha heads, Greek statues mix with dinosaur bones, octopi become hats. Chin thumbs his nose at the idea that a set of books, produced by an American publishing house from the 1910s through the 50s, could effectively record and taxonomize the world — at least, not in anyway that does justice to its diversity.
The stakes go up from there. One of Chin’s early pieces, a forerunner to social practice, is the 1990s “Revival Field,” represented here in diorama form. Together with a team of scientists, Chin made a series of small wooden boxes mounted on the wall glow inside, showing the various stages in a planting process. By planting a certain combination species, then harvesting and burning them, Chin realized a method for extracting toxic metals from soil, thereby renewing it. “I always wanted a Field Museum diorama in my house,” said Chin, “So I made one.” But this is more than an instructional display — it is a critique of environmental degradation and a call to renewal.
Chin’s process of transformation through collaboration continues in the adjacent gallery, dedicated to his current project Flint Fit; an ambitious, multi-city project taking on the water crisis through fashion, industry, and recycling. In the fall of 2017, Chin and a group of Flint organizers collected 90,000 of the plastic bottles still required for everyday survival and shipped them to Greensboro, North Carolina. The company Unifi transformed them into fabric. Chin invited the designer Tracy Reese to design a line of clothes from the recycled material, which were produced back in Flint, Michigan at the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center.
The project is represented in the gallery by a mix of crumpled plastic bottles, videos documenting the community discussions in Flint, and some of Reese’s realized designs on mannequins — khaki and blue swimsuits, skirts, and hats. The center of the room is dominated by the Queens Museum’s 1939 New York watershed topographical map, over which Chin has hung a weathered and menacing-looking metal sculpture of the contaminated Flint river.
“Revival Field” and “Flint Fit” fill a unique role in the spectrum between art, social practice, and activism. In political terms, they might be called prefigurative — gestures that are both effective in themselves and utopian, albeit on a small scale. While Chin acknowledges that there is more work to be done in Flint, the project both embodies a new politics and gestures towards more. As he puts it, “You gotta show it can be done.”
While “Flint Fit” points to a colonial situation within America, Chin’s other signature strategy is to create enigmatic, layered sculptures that address opaque or hidden histories of Western violence elsewhere. Hanging from the ceiling of the large, light-filled atrium of the museum is “Our Strange Flower of Democracy” (2005), what looks like an inverted pencil made of bamboo, with a parasol-like hat. The object appears ominous but fragile and temporary. In fact, it is modeled after the American military’s infamous “Daisy Cutter” bomb used in the wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, and Afghanistan, one of the most destructive weapons in human history. Chin brings this denatured object of violence into the museum gallery, inviting visitors to stand below its destructive arms.
“Cabinet of Craving,” (2012) looms at the end of one gallery corridor, an eerie and elegant wooden spider that stands over nine feet tall. By circling the spider, visitors can peer into its hollow glass belly, which holds a Victorian tea set on a silver tray. The monster here is British colonialism. Its menacing hunger references the Opium Wars, in which Great Britain forcibly pushed the drug onto south China. The wars destabilized the region and spurred a great diaspora, including Chin’s ancestors. Chin envisioned the piece originally for a domestic setting, “The nightmare that emerges in your own room, your own home, your own family.” As one walks under and through the spider’s legs, one feels its consuming presence.
Leaning against the adjacent wall is his 2005 sculpture “Safe,” in which a series of monumental planks studded with rusting nails covers a gilt, curtained frame. The frame is molded with the crest of King Leopold II of Belgium. Under his rule, the people of Congo were decimated by disease and forced labor to extract rubber resources — at least a million, and likely up to fifteen million died in a genocide that spanned several decades. The nails in the boards are a reference to spiritual mini-power figures from Congo, nkondi, in which nails are driven into wooden statues in a ritual against evil. Chin calls this piece one of his ‘lamentations.’ Perhaps the nails are ineffective at warding off the evil of colonialism, or perhaps, in covering the crest of the king, they are a warning against future horrors.
There’s a lot more to the exhibition, including Chin’s multi-year intervention in the TV show Melrose Place, represented by a series of small, sly conceptual objects referencing Magritte and Rilke; and a vending machine dispensing pieces of the American flag. The theme of “all over the place” continues with Soundtrack, a collaborative music piece drawing sounds from the New York Subway that debuted in May, as well as two new large-scale installations to take place in Times Square starting in July.
Despite the grave topics, Chin’s dual strategies of creating enigmatic, researched memorials to the past and developing creative interventions in the present, together suggest his optimism and refusal of reading history and our futures as an either/or situation. Even as we deal with the long afterlife of colonialism, we can take its refuse — encyclopedias and dioramas, weapons and waste — and craft a future from them that is funny, surreal, and expansive.
Mel Chin: All Over The Place is on view at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens, NY 11368) through August 12.