Friday, March 7, 2014

Going Viral, Mel Chin at NOMA

A retrospective is usually a display of works in chronological order with appropriate short comments on the side. In Mel Chin: Rematch, at the New Orleans Museum of Art, this approach quickly becomes a vain attempt in light of the diversity of the artist's practice. The seventy pieces differ by size, media, subject, and the logistics  to install the show must have been a challenge for all involved.
Mel Chin is born in Houston from Chinese descent and early works like Western Dynasty Urn, 1974, with its Chinese inspired design decorated with the symbol of a Longhorn or Vertical Palette, 1976-1985, which refers to the five Chinese elements are reminders of his dual roots. The influence of Dada and Surrealists, like Joseph Cornell (who can be seen at NOMA) is quite apparent in Homage to Cornell or Magnolias in the Moonlight, both made in 1976, but already, Bird in a Cage, 1976, alludes to an extinct specie of pigeons and  forebears some of the artist's future themes.
See/Saw, 1976, a Land art project in Houston, Myrrha P.I.A, 1984, a sculpture for Bryant Park in New York City or Lecture Ax, 1988, a conceptual piece made for a lecture, illustrate the diversity of the works early on, but the opening of the show is stolen by The Extraction of Plenty from What Remains: 1823-, 1988, a large-scale sculpture which includes two broken columns, replica from the White House, surrounding a cornucopia made of tree fibers, mud, coffee and (goat) blood. The perfectly staged introduction to the political activism of Mel Chin is a critic of the policies of American administrations in South America, and after reflection, appears to favor an easy symbolism to tackle a complex problem.
Material related to the project Revival Field started in 1990 includes photographs, drawings, a model of the actual outdoor fields, a piece of corn hanging in a cage and a long description of the "interdisciplinary project combining art, science, and public affairs" to clean toxic material through hyperaccumulator plants, in short phytoremediation. This section of the exhibition and Operation Paydirt, 2006, launched following the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, represent the artist as a catalyst for projects aimed at improving community lives. Through these, Mel Chin reaches his full bloom as a conceptual artist and activist.
A major installation arranged in an oval gallery shaped by the intersection of two circles or vesica piscis, Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand, 1987represents eight "planetary" sculptures, seven arranged along the walls and a free-standing sculpture for Mercury. Inspired by Greek mythology, Eastern and Western theory of alchemy, made with seventy different materials, the installation stays murky due to its density and complexity.
Upon reaching Circumfessional Hymenal Sea (Portrait of Jacques Derrida), 2005-2006, I realized that I was spending more time reading the commentaries than looking at the art.The French philosopher Jacques Derrida inspired the painted wooden sculpture, an impenetrable repository of knowledge, allusion to the closed world of academia and possibly the remoteness of philosophers. The description of the concepts behind the sculpture fills two pages of the book published at the occasion of the exhibition.
The subject becomes darker with Cluster, 2005-6, a series of jewels, copies of wounds inflicted by weapons of war. Rubies, diamonds, shine in place of wounds and blood and the allusion to the economics of war is quite direct. More on wars with a Glock-17 9mm handgun transformed in a surgical first aid kit or a pipe in a bomb and two racially charged pieces exuding violence, Night Rap, 1994, and Fan Club, 1994.
A comfortable sofa allows for a break to watch looped television clips of  Melrose Place, a soap opera.  In the Name of the Place, 1995-97, is a collaborative work between 120 artists who embedded 150 props in the sets and introduce humorous to politically charged subliminal messages. The lack of interaction and follow-up with the audience weakens an otherwise interesting project.
KNOWMAD, 1999, is a video game built at MIT consisting of tents filled with colorful carpets and a pomegranate tree. One must chase fruits through the tents and gets points... I managed to play three minutes, distracted by the beautiful designs of the carpets. The video's goal is to bring attention to the precarity of nomadic life.
A carpet is also featured in Degrees of Paradise, 1991, a three part installation which includes a vestibule decorated with a Tantrist "graffiti" and two womb-like dark spaces with decorated ceilings. On one side, a representation of the earth's atmosphere weaved on a rug and the other, a dynamic representation of clouds made with fourteen video monitors. Crossing cultures, interdisciplinary, mixing technology and tradition, the work represents the artist's hallmark.
The exhibition concludes with two major projects. The Funk and Wag from A to Z completed in 2012, the compulsive work fills a room with 524 collages made from images printed in The Universal Standard Encyclopedia of Funk and Wagnalls. Surrealist, politically charged, poetic, satirical, the association of images is filled with symbols, concepts, allusions, references, and the installation can become overwhelming  if one attempts to look at each collage. In contrast, Operation Paydirt, an ongoing project well known in New Orleans is a simplistic approach to a complicated problem, lead contamination and ultimately violence. Visitors are invited to participate and draw an anonymous Fundred.
Our Strange Flower of Democracy, 2005, could not find a better place to explode than the Great Hall. A variation of the cargo cult, the representation of a bomb made with bamboo and coconut twine can trigger a discussion about damages inflicted in the name of democracy. The provocative work relates to Mel Chin's practice who describes ideas as viruses inserted within a social realm to bring changes. The artist is not seen as a creator but as a catalyst for ideas and actions, staying remote but impacting directly on our world and lives. Chin sees the role of the artist as a facilitator, "a guide for navigation through legal, political and social worlds".
A Renaissance man or a maverick? You decide.

no photographs allowed 
photographs by the author:
NOMA's façade
"Our Strange Flower of Democracy", 2005

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