New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Wednesday - Sunday through August 12, suggested admission $8 adults, $4 seniors, free for children eighteen and under
The name of Houston-born conceptual artist Mel Chin’s current exhibition at the Queens Museum, “Mel Chin: All Over the Place,” is aptly titled. The show, which runs through August 12, features works that involve New Orleans, Washington DC, Minnesota, Chile, North Carolina, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, New York City, Flint, Michigan, and other locations. In addition to pieces at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park institution, Chin, who lived on the Lower East Side for nearly twenty years, also has pieces in Times Square and the Broadway-Lafayette subway station. And this past Sunday, Chin was back at the Queens Museum, where, as a young boy at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, held partly in the same building, he suffered a breakdown that resulted in shock therapy and partial, permanent memory loss; he even had to relearn how to draw. He related this story and many more during a sensational impromptu tour he led that afternoon; he was like the pied piper, as the visitors following him grew from one to three to five to nine to thirty over the course of two very enlightening, rather intimate hours.
The show is spread across the entire museum, which is hosting the exhibit in conjunction with the nonprofit organization No Longer Empty. (Chin has even staged interventions in the Panorama of the City of New York and the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany objects). Every work is layered with deeply personal and political meaning; Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, occasionally incorporates aspects of his own life into the art while also making sharp, often subtle observations about consumption, marketing, economics, science, democracy, the environment, capitalism, refugees, astronomy, alchemy, corporate greed, racism, ethnocentrism, mythology, history, and war. The pieces first grab you because of their visual splendor, but you need to read the labels to get the full impact — or have Chin with you to talk about them. “Everything has a cultural weight,” he said on the tour. He sees “art as a catalytic motivator” that can make a difference in this world through the “liberation of images.” He also considers his work, which he calls “meditations,” to consist of “lamentations on my life as I’ve come to understand it.”
His process and materials are just as important as the final piece itself. “Shape of a Lie” features a Native American pipestone replica of his own tongue on one side of a wall, a bronze representation of a little toe, large gonads, and a twisted gut on the other. “Lecture Ax” is an encased ax with a blade made of pages from notes for a lecture he was giving at the New School; during the class, he drank a six-pack of beer and slammed the ax into the blackboard. “Cabinet of Craving” recalls Louise Bourgeois’s large-scale “Spider” but contains a vitrine with a Victorian teapot that references colonialism, the Opium Wars, and the narcotic’s impact on his family. For “Presence of Tragedy,” Chin re-created his own smile and placed it on the center of a porcelained steel plate that he perforated, a statement on the AIDS crisis and fear.
Divided into four thematic, nonchronological sections — “Destroying Angels of Our Creation,” “Artifice of Facts and Belief,” “Levity’s Wounds and Gravity’s Well,” and “The Cruel Light of the Sun” — the exhibit includes several installations in which Chin takes action, not only pointing out social ills but doing something about it. For “Flint Fit,” one of numerous projects in which Chin investigates lead poisoning, he has partnered with New York fashion designer Tracy Reese, North Carolina textile company Unifi, and the Flint-based St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center to turn recyclable water bottles into rain- and swimwear. He has brought together “Safehouse Door,” a repurposed door that was on a home in a post-Katrina New Orleans neighborhood that had high levels of lead, with the ongoing “Fundred Project,” which consists of hundreds of thousands hundred-dollar-bill templates with drawings by families and schoolchildren across America that are sent to the Fundred Reserve in Washington, DC.
Chin, who has double vision that requires him to sometimes wear glasses with the left lens blacked out, gets some of his ideas from dreams, including “Circumfessional Hymenal Sea (Portrait of Jacques Derrida),” “QWERTY-Courbet” (be sure to look at the keyboard side through your camera lens to more clearly see the image), and “Spilled Vision.” He seems downright prescient with “Gate of the Gods,” a wall hanging of rope and basketballs above a re-creation of the gate of LeBron James’s Los Angeles home, which was spray-painted with a racial slur; nearby is a Michael Jordan sneaker, resulting in the piece evoking President Trump’s recent tweet lambasting James and praising Jordan. Chin also can be sneaky; for “Total Proof: The GALA Committee,” he was able to get politically motivated works of art placed on the set of Melrose Place for three seasons without Aaron Spelling’s knowledge. Among the other don’t-miss works are “Our Strange Flower of Democracy,” a bamboo version of a Vietnam War bomb, dangling dangerously overhead; “The Funk & Wag from A to Z,” a room of alphabetical images cut out of twenty-five volumes of 1950s Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias; and “Landscape,” a trio of paintings, which Chin calls “windows,” referencing different time periods, artistic styles, and countries along the thirtieth parallel, along with landfill waste seeping out the bottom of the walls; and “Sea to See,” two huge domes representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, lit up with digital imagery dealing with endangered species and climate change.
Curated by Laura Raicovich, and Manon Slome, the exhibit also spreads out to Times Square with “Wake,” a re-creation of the skeleton of a ship based on the USS Nightingale, which had quite a history, fronted by a large-scale robotic replica of opera star Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. “Wake” expands into augmented reality using the “Unmoored” app. And at the Broadway-Lafayette subway station, Chin’s 1990s site-specific “Signal” has been rededicated, giving credit to collaborator Peter Jemison of the Six Nations of the Iroquois and Seneca Tribe. The work relates to the Dutch settlement in New York, the Native American Wickquasgeck Trail, and a wampum-belt-inspired statement about peace while alerting straphangers to the next approaching train. Indoors and outside, indeed all over the place, the sixty-six-year-old Chin’s oeuvre is remarkably well researched and beautifully realized, so make sure you have plenty of time to delve into the myriad details of every piece as Chin explores truth and power in brilliant ways. And don’t be surprised if you feel yourself activated because of it.
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