Transforming the Object
“Mel Chin: Rematch” intrigues with an articulate variety of media at CAM.
It's not easy to pin down Mel Chin. His cross-media style leaves nothing untouched: 2D art, sculpture, object art, performance pieces, a video game, even ecological projects all have a place in his repertoire. His work, at once as playful and as serious as its creator, focuses on the object—both what it is and what it could be. Through Dec. 20 at the Contemporary Art Museum, “Mel Chin: Rematch,” the most expansive exhibition of Chin’s work, showcases approximately 50 pieces from the past 40 years of Chin’s life.
Chin revels in the “thing,” exploring transformations from one idea to another. “Mel is revising the individual object,” says Jeffrey Uslip, CAM’s chief curator. “[He] is interested in almost repurposing the object, [for instance] turning a gun into a first-aid kit. That’s a very specific intention.”
Most importantly, it always has something to say: The Glock transformed into a first-aid kit speaks to the idea of a gun as an object of pain. Chin removed its interior components and replaced them with an Epi-Pen, bandages, saline and more, combating the inherent impulse of a gun and transforming it from an object of destructive intent to one of healing. “The more you deconstruct it, the more you have the possibility of saving a life,” Chin explained during the CAM media preview that preceded the show’s public opening on Sept. 5.
What is arguably the centerpiece of the exhibit, if judged on sheer size, is an inner room, covered floor to ceiling in illustrations from Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia. “The Funk and Wag from A to Z” (2012) sorts images from the encyclopedia by section, assembling them in Dada-like collages to turn them from representations of scientific ideas into works of irreverent, surrealist art.
Social consciousness is also incorporated into Chin’s work, either through the nature of the piece itself or through active participation in a social cause. One of his most poignant pieces, “Fan Club” (1994), is a creation in memory of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American killed in 1982 by two Detroit autoworkers with baseball bats who mistook him for Japanese. Mel Chin’s piece is a wooden baseball bat, split and shaped to form the skeleton of a fan, with white Chinese silk stretched across. In the center is a Japanese sun, colored red with Chin’s own blood. Closed, it appears to be a symbol of American culture; opened, it’s a critique on national stereotypes and identity.
Chin has also been involved in ecological activism. “Revival Field” (1991-ongoing) is a collaboration with the USDA located at Pig’s Eye, a hazardous waste landfill in Minnesota. The project serves as both a conceptual artwork and science project: It has yielded groundbreaking research in the ways that toxic soil can be remediated by special plants.
Another of his projects, “Operation Paydirt” (2006-ongoing), began in New Orleans to generate awareness about lead poisoning. It’s complemented by the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, which invites exhibition participants to draw a $100 note, which will eventually be presented to Congress with a request for an even exchange of actual capital to prevent lead poisoning in American cities.
Lisa Melandri, executive director of CAM, says that Chin’s work is “particularly salient” in St. Louis, as he “plumbs social and political structures to their depths,” bringing buried issues back to the surface. But his work, critical as it might be, also evokes a hope for society that these problems can be resolved with the same visionary, playful thinking he uses in his art. “He takes joy in the object, in the thing,” Melandri says.
“Mel Chin: Rematch” runs until Dec. 20 at the Contemporary Art Museum. For more info, visit camstl.org.