Critique the World, Critique Yourself

Mel Chin’s Rematch in Four Museums in Houston

“The survival of my own ideas may not be as important as a condition I might create for others’ ideas to be realized.” — Mel Chin

Mel Chin, "Our Strange Flower of Democracy," 2005 Bamboo, river cane, burlap, coir (coconut twine), mahogany, steel, bottle caps. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Nash Baker ©

Mel Chin, “Our Strange Flower of Democracy,” 2005 Bamboo, river cane, burlap, coir (coconut twine), mahogany, steel, bottle caps. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Nash Baker ©

A haunting sculpture, strangely reminiscent of both nature and machinery, greets visitors as they enter Asia Society Texas Center in Houston. Made of bamboo, its graceful cylindrical body ends with a conical bottom, like a rocket, while wavering at its top is a plumage of long river canes, as if tossed by the wind.  Life and death, beauty and danger, creation and destruction — all these things come to mind when one is confronted with this fascinating work, “Our Strange Flower of Democracy,” by famous artist and native Houstonian Mel Chin.

The shape of Chin’s sculpture replicates the 15,000-pound bomb, BLU-82B/C-130, also known by its nickname the “Daisy Cutter.” Used by the U.S. military in Vietnam and Afghanistan, this bomb would flatten a forest into a helicopter landing zone. Prior to the bombing, the aircrafts dropped flyers with the picture of the bomb as a fair warning to the local population — get out or get killed. By appropriating the “Daisy Cutter” as a symbol of U.S. foreign policy, Chin encourages us to consider the meaning of the popular expression used by government officials — “defending democracy.” Does the government always truly “defend democracy” when American troops become involved in an armed conflict overseas or is it rhetoric that justifies aggression?

Like with all Chin’s works, there are multiple layers of meaning waiting to be uncovered by a thoughtful viewer. One of the clues lies in the resemblance between the flowerets at the top of the sculpture and the hemlock. This poisonous plant was supposedly taken by ancient philosopher Socrates who was sentenced to death for questioning the principles of Athenian democracy. The shadow of ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy, evokes the question about courage to speak up and complacency in contemporary society.

The use of bamboo and coconut twine as structural elements indicates yet another layer of meaning that has to do with Chin’s interest in the so-called cargo cults that sprang in Melanesia during World War II. Islanders saw military equipment and supplies airdropped for the soldiers who often shared some of the goods with them. When the dropping of cargo stopped with the end of the war, islanders started imitating the same practices that they saw performed by the soldiers in hope to bring material wealth (“cargo”). One of these practices involved building life-size replicas of airplanes using local materials. Chin’s sculpture invites contemplation of the complex relationship between Western and non-Western civilizations.

Mel Chin is one of the most famous and most prolific contemporary American artists. His art covers a truly encyclopedic range of subjects — politics, ecology, science, world cultures, the subconscious. Chin also is a Renaissance man when it comes to the choice of media — he easily moves from 2D to 3D, from installations to performances, and from video to digital media. However, the most important thing about his art, remarkable as it is in itself, is its social resonance.

Mel Chin carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has a keen eye for social injustices, political controversies and ecological problems, no matter where on the planet they take place. His art opens eyes, engages minds and calls to take action. Most of all, it reminds us that we are a part of humankind and everything that is happening in the world has bearing on our lives.

This winter and spring, Houston is celebrating the lifelong achievement of its famous native son with a large retrospective, “Rematch.” Organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, this extensive exhibition simultaneously showcases Mel Chin’s work in four museums: Blaffer Art Museum, Asia Society Texas Center, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. The retrospective opened on Jan. 17, with the artist’s talk marathon during which Chin gave presentations at each of the four participating museums, every time addressing the specific selection of works on view.

I followed the artist’s route from one museum to another and was overwhelmed by the scope and depth of his creative output. It would be a disservice to this amazing master to try to review the whole retrospective in a magazine article. I will provide snippets of this grandiose presentation and focus on the works that stroke a particular chord with my own sensibilities.

Of the four locations, the show at the Asia Society Texas Center is my favorite. This exhibition features only six works, but their craftsmanship and complexity of content deserve longer time than one may imagine. Thematically and visually, all of them contain references to non-European cultures — Chinese, Japanese, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and, in the instance of the above-mentioned “Our Strange Flower of Democracy,” Melanesian. However, their content is much broader and brings together Eastern and Western philosophies, psychoanalysis, and connects them with contemporary events and our own everyday experiences.

Mel Chin, "Wheel of Death," 2002 Firestone® Wilderness AT tire, paint on wood. Loaned by Jim and Ann Harithas. Photo: Nash Baker ©

Mel Chin, “Wheel of Death,” 2002 Firestone® Wilderness AT tire, paint on wood. Loaned by Jim and Ann Harithas. Photo: Nash Baker ©

From a distance, “Wheel of Death” gives an impression of a beautifully executed black-and-white drawing that features three whimsically looking, but undoubtedly recognizable creatures — a pig, a rooster and a snake. According to the Buddhist “wheel of life,” they represent three “mental poisons — ignorance, greed and anger. As they follow each other in a circle, they create a recurrent pattern of cause and effect. However, there is a surprise. Upon a closer observation, one realizes that the image is not a drawing at all, but a collage made of pieces of a car tire.

Mel Chin used a particular type of Firestone tire which caused accidents with the Ford Explorer in the late 1990s — early 2000s. “Wheel of Death” is a biting satire that targets corporate mentality and its lethal consequences for individual consumers.

“Geometry of Wrath” reminds of Japanese decorative lacquer panels inlaid with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl. It also hides a surprise: at a closer inspection, one realizes that we are looking at a sheet of steel to which oil paint was applied to produce a semblance of a shiny lacquered surface. As we follow the outline of the winding grapevine adorned with golden leaves and white grapes that runs across the surface, we notice that at some points it intersects with a barely visible underlying grid. There are also faint traces of scribbles resembling the Arabic calligraphy.

Mel Chin, "Geometry of Wrath," 2005 Oil, gold leaf, steel. Collection of Molly Kemp and Ann Harithas. Photo: Nash Baker ©

Mel Chin, “Geometry of Wrath,” 2005 Oil, gold leaf, steel. Collection of Molly Kemp and Ann Harithas. Photo: Nash Baker ©

This work is an example of Chin’s recurrent theme, mapping. The grapevine and the underlying diagrams refer to al Qaida’s communications with its followers, including financial transactions and exchanges of intelligence. The scale of the financial operations is reflected in the size of the grape leaves — the larger the transaction, the larger the leaf.

In his choice of imagery, Chin was inspired by the writings of linguist Christopher Luxenberg who argued that the often-quoted line from the Quran about the virgins awaiting Jihad warriors in the afterlife — was actually a misinterpretation. Luxenberg examined ancient Aramaic and Syriac words and concluded that the reward should be interpreted as “white raisins” of crystal clarity rather than virgins. By invoking these new findings, Chin exposes the perils of blind faith which drives suicide bombers recruited by al Qaida and, generally, all fanatically-minded people regardless of their beliefs.

Mel Chin, "Scholar’s Nightmare," land (detail), 2001 Wood, dye, animal part. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Nash Baker ©

Mel Chin, “Scholar’s Nightmare,” land (detail), 2001 Wood, dye, animal part. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Nash Baker ©

One of the reasons why Chin’s works are so appealing is their humorous subterfuge. Even when addressing the most serious subject, the artist never loses sight of its humorous aspects. At the same time, playful subjects always contain a deeper meaning. “Scholar’s Nightmare” is a semantic pun which exploits our dependency on the context in order to understand the text. A “nightmare” may mean a bad dream and also a female horse; a “leg” may mean a part of a body as well as a structural element in furniture.

In this work, we see a table which, in its style, imitates geometrically-shaped furniture of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). However, one of its legs seems to have been inexplicably transformed into a horse’s hoof. The artist brings together Chinese culture, Surrealism and post-Freudian analysis in order to convey one of the scholars’ most fearful thoughts: what if their ideas — in this case, epitomized in the most indispensable tool of the scholar’s trade, the writing table — escape from them?

Chin’s global-mindedness is best illustrated by an exciting installation “KNOWMAD.” The title is a pun on the word “nomad,” a person whose lifestyle is characterized by constant migration. Chin’s intention was to bring attention to nomadic tribes of Central Asia, Anatolia and the Middle East whose traditional way of life and even existence are threatened by ongoing political and civil changes.

Mel Chin, "KNOWMAD," 1999. Interactive video installation, vintage rugs, fabric tent, projector, Windows computer. Courtesy of the artist Photo: Nash Baker ©

Mel Chin, “KNOWMAD,” 1999. Interactive video installation, vintage rugs, fabric tent, projector, Windows computer. Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Nash Baker ©

The installation features a tent with a pile of original Asian handmade rugs on the floor. But there is an unusual object in this seemingly typical nomadic home — a video arcade machine. On the day of my visit, the tent was filled with children and adults anxious to play the video game designed by the KNOWMAD Confederacy, a team of computer game experts, graphic designers and a musician brought together by Chin.

The players go through a landscape of tents filled with mazes of rug patterns as they try to capture pomegranates hidden inside the mazes. Like in all video games, the player is allowed limited time to complete the quest or “die.” The time constraint echoes the daily experience of nomadic people whose survival depends on gathering resources from a place.

But the game is not just about winning. As the players navigate through the mazes, they learn to recognize the patterns of different tribal rugs and appreciate their beauty. The game is homage to the tribal rug production as a source of visual and creative energy. Or, to use the artist’s words, “Consciousness imported from game to the real world is the travel that ‘KNOWMAD’ seeks to promote.”

Chin is often characterized as a conceptual artist. However, this definition touches upon some aspects of his work while leaving out other important aspects. What about his outstanding draftsmanship, his surrealistic paintings and sculptures, his tongue-in-cheek objects, like the famous “Lecture Ax” which is currently displayed at CAMH?

Made of an altered book dipped in wax and attached to the wooden handle, Lecture Ax was used by the artist as a prop for his performance/lecture at the New School of Social Research in New York City in1988. According to Chin, he was so nervous to talk in front of an academic crowd that he reinforced himself with a few beers. “I had a headache and I was already edgy, so I just ripped off the newspaper, picked it up and said, ‘This is an ax!’ The head of the psychology department said, ‘What the fuck you gonna do, man?’ I turned around and slammed the ax into the blackboard. It broke apart and the notes fluttered down. I read from the notes. I was still shaking, but I was drunk; it didn’t matter.”1

Mel Chin’s art defies definitions. It is no use trying to fit his diverse and multifaceted talent into a cubbyhole of traditional notions. His works are fun, provocative and inspirational. Go to Houston to see Rematch and let your own creativity soar.

“Mel Chin: Rematch” will be on view through March 21 at Blaffer Art Museum, through April 19 at Contemporary Arts Center Houston and Asia Society Texas Center, and through May 1 at The Station Museum of Contemporary Art.

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By Elena Ivanova

ISSUE Staff Writer