Numerous institutions are currently highlighting the work of Mel Chin, who was born and raised in Houston and spent formative years (1975-1983) here, as well. Four decades into his career, Chin is known nationally as a “conceptualist,” one with a political bent.
Mel Chin: Rematch originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and is organized by Miranda Lash, formerly NOMA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and currently Curator of Contemporary Art at The Speed Art Museum in Louisville. In Houston, the exhibition is presented as major collaboration between the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAMH), the Asia Society Texas Center, and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. At the latter, “Degrees of Separation” includes an homage to Chin by other artists and collectives. The Art League Houston’s separate show on Chin, “Paper Trail and Unauthorized Collaborations,” just closed. Given this sprawl, I will mostly limit my discussion to the CAMH, where works are installed in the lower-level Zilkha Gallery.
There are various possible modes of relating art and politics. Art can represent oppressive social conditions through an imagistic form broadly accessible and readable by public audiences. Art can also, in a similar approach, represent the really-existing political struggles against those conditions. Paraphrasing a chestnut from Karl Marx, the distinction is an understanding of the world, in the former instance, versus an effort to change that world, in the latter instance. For example, Social Realism prominent in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, encompassed both of these strategies.
Eschewing mere “passive”, distanced representation of a situation, such as economic misery, is a third mode. Simultaneously, this mode eschews simple representation of political movements: organized to transform those situations; external to the sphere of art; and orientated more towards the future. Instead an art is created which can itself, through its internal processes, more directly and immediately materialize a new, changed set of conditions in the real world and in real time. “Social practice art” is one name for this contemporary approach.
One aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has been associated with this art and has a greater prominence at the Blaffer installation. Revival Field (begun 1990) was a collaborative project between agronomists with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the artist. The first Field was in Saint Paul, Minnesota at a former landfill for industrial waste, one where soil was badly contaminated with poisonous metals such as cadmium and zinc. Chin’s work tested the effectiveness of hyperaccumulator plant species (including types of corn and lettuce) in absorbing those metals and making the land safe once again. These experiments actually provided useful data for scientists examining this “phytoremediation” process.
Rather than centrally representing this threat to public health, or engaging in conventional political campaigns – petitioning or pressuring the government to take future actions that may or may not happen – Chin’s initiative helped to immediately and directly resolve a problem on the ground. This is considered a strength of social practice art.
At the CAMH, another aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has greater prominence – that of traditional representation vis-à-vis politics.
The vicious 1991 beating of African-American Rodney King by Los Angeles police was (unusually for the time) captured on video and shown extensively on national news reports. Despite popular outrage, the following year a jury – of ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian-American – acquitted officers on charges of excessive force, triggering in LA the largest urban rebellion seen since the 1960s. There are parallels to the recent Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.
Made two years later, Chin’s Night Rap (1994) looks like a standard-issue, black police baton mounted on a mike stand, dramatically spotlighted – as if on a stage – in a lonely corner of the CAMH’s gallery. Seamlessly attached to the “business” end is a microphone, turned on, with ambient sound projected through speakers mounted elsewhere in the gallery. Hip-hop – including groups such as NWA and Body Count, rapper Ice-T’s metal band – during this period spoke out energetically against police brutality. Chuck D of Public Enemy declared – in the paradigmatic reading of the art form and referencing the then-important (now superseded) news network – that “rap is CNN for black people”.
The “business” end is suggestive of state violence against African-Americans: a “rap” over the head. Metaphors here have a literary quality, which appears elsewhere in Chin’s sculptures and titles. Simultaneously, the microphone is suggestive of how such violence becomes part of the material foundation for rap and the projection of radical, black voices: oppression breeds this resistance.
A third interpretation is possible. The 1991 Rodney King video “exposed” police abuses for the doubtful: to wit, white people. Black people, Latinos, and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are not as likely to have such doubts, to say the least. This widespread “exposure” of something hidden, disguised was a factor in sparking the 1992 LA rebellion. Today, on the other hand, that is arguably less the case. Cameras are everywhere – on phones or tablets, in surveillance systems for cities and private buildings – and their images are ubiquitous. The recent choking-death of African-American Eric Garner by New York City police was recorded by a passerby on the street and can be seen globally on YouTube. That hardly prevented the brazen killing, or a grand jury from refusing to indict the NYPD officers.
The microphone, then, in Night Rap does not primarily posit the resistance of rap and hip-hop culture. Instead, that posits the state’s recording of its own acts of violence – and the broadcasting, unambiguously and unashamedly, of its willingness to kick your ass and let the whole world know it.
Jam Saqi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, was arrested in 1978 and imprisoned for years by the government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Chin created (Belief/Punishment) Yaqin Saza (for Jam Saqi) (1986) for a Houston fundraiser by Amnesty International, to publicize Zia’s human rights abuses.
The sculpture’s left part is a circular agglomeration of books: perpendicular to the wall from which they are hung, with tails facing the viewer; and smeared with asphalt, pages fused together, and titles obscured. In the stack’s center is a lone, unmodified book with a red cover; the text is not visible, only the bottom. The disc is tightly bound by a ring of riveted steel. All of this allegorizes abstracted “belief”, as a category, and its containment by the state. The specificity of this belief is undefined, which is oddly consonant with the military dictatorship’s zeal to render invisible and destroy the secular leftist opposition – not coincidentally, to ultimately be supplanted by another “opposition” more in accord with the interests of the Pakistani regime and its US backers. That is, of course, Islamic fundamentalism, further strengthened by US support for rebels who fought Soviet intervention in neighboring Afghanistan from 1979-1989.
The right part is a club wrapped in paper treated to look like flayed skin, per the exhibition catalog (although that would be cryptic to anyone in a museum audience who does not torture people as a profession). In this allegory of “punishment”, Chin was influenced by Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which argues that pain “unmakes” human consciousness. Through historical studies of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the 1967-1974 Greek military junta, and others, Scarry also notes that implements of torture are commonly presented visibly and in advance to the victim – who then must imagine torments to come.
In Night Rap, the police nightstick represents not only an instrument of state violence, but how representation itself, whatever its good intentions, can be complicit in reproducing that violence – via its recording and broadcasting. Belief/Punishment presents, again, not only such an instrument, but how presentation itself is embedded in the structure of torture.
There is one distinction. The former work proposes a Foucauldian counter-power, in rap, “made” by power itself. This is absent from the latter work, in which power – via the club and containment – is proposed to operate in a traditionally conceived, purely repressive mode of “unmaking”. Only the red book at the disc’s center – signaling the heart of the human subject and its autonomous commitments, not constructed by an external power – survives such destruction.
Chin is registering ambiguities of representation and problems of classically liberal strategies of ideology critique – of “exposing” something “hidden”, expecting that will be decisive in resolving the problem. Only during certain, limited political periods does such ideology critique have any efficaciousness.
What initially resembles a smoking pipe, in Elementary Object (For Corsica), sits on a bed of wood shavings in a steel strongbox. The box is presented on a horizontal plane, in a wall-mounted, glass display case; its lid is open; and when observed from above and at an angle, the “pipe’s” orientation and the shaving’s color scheme evoke Surrealist René Magritte’s well-known The Treachery of Images. The “pipe’s” bowl is sealed, with a fuse inserted: it is actually a bomb, (nominally) complete with blasting powder. As is frequently the case with Chin, this can be recognized only by way of the wall labels or secondary commentary.
A key question here concerns the artistic image’s ontological ground or model – a “real” pipe in the outside world – and the contrast between similitude and resemblance. Magritte’s painting was famously interpreted by Michel Foucault as setting into motion a network of similitudes, internal to the work itself, and definitionally without that grounding origin.Elementary Object points, instead, towards a relation of resemblance, per se based on that model.
This is a linguistic play on “pipe bomb”, frequently used by Corsicans organized underground to fight for their island’s independence from France (one of the national struggles persistently bubbling just underneath the surface in Europe). The disjunction between iconic signifier and its proper referent – between the explosive “pipe” and a real pipe – is, then, the “treachery” in question, one with potentially fatal consequences.
Conversely, theses concerning state violence in Night Rap or Belief/Punishment presuppose a proper correspondence between iconic signifier and referent. Crucial to their functioning, the club and the baton are objectively, correctly decipherable as such. Once more, “truth” and veridicality seem to be on the side of power.
Surrealism is evident elsewhere, including Scholar’s Nightmare (1991) at the Asia Society. A domestic table leg morphs into an animal hoof, echoing Magritte yet again – specifically the boots merging into human feet.
Two early-twentieth-century poems from Rainer Maria Rilke were Chin’s inspiration for Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version (1990), a modified straight-razor resting in opened shaving kit. “Archaic Torso of Apollo” enjoins: “You must change your life”. Further, from the “First Elegy” in the Duino Elegies:
Beauty is only
the first touch of terror
we can still bear
and it awes us so much
because it so coolly
disdains to destroy us.
This concept, art’s transformational power and its demands, is figured in the silhouette of the Venus de Milo hand-carved into the razor’s cutting-edge. That ancient Greek statue has long been considered a canonical moment of beauty in western art. One can imagine the “terrible”, “destructive” wound that would result from this instrument, the force of beauty. This imagined wound – a jagged tear, abstracted, and without form – can be counterposed to the Venus’ rigorous, classical form.
Traumas of very different origin are given well-ordered form in M-16 (wound brooch) (2005-6), made during the US occupation of Iraq and based on photographs of bullet wounds from an M-16 – the US Army’s standard-issue rifle since 1967. The center is a roughly circular hollow; surrounding rubies reference blood; and onyx references contusions. Other works in this Cluster series similarly fix, as decorative jewelry, the size, shape, and – sometimes – position of real instances of war injuries, as revealed by medical and forensic documentation.
In both Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version and M-16 (wound brooch) are overtones of a highly dualistic reading of gender. In the former, the grand theme – the source of art’s rending of consciousness – is feminized in the Venus. Its mode of appearing is banal and quotidian – the masculine activity of shaving, personalized through the small, intimate mirror and sequestered via the velvet-lined, wooden box. In the latter work, rending is more literal and more deadly, a paradigmatically masculinist, collective act of war. Its mode of appearing is feminized costume jewelry, properly for display in public space.
Within modernist thought of the blood-soaked twentieth century, an equivalence was not infrequently drawn between the shattering potential of art and the destruction inherent to politics and war. Chin, laudably, tries to attenuate this troublesome equivalence, by way of a dialectic of form – and the more debatable, gendered metaphors.
“Points of view established in the past are no longer up to date,” Chin states of this current retrospective. “It’s time for a rematch.” Nonetheless, despite some being almost three decades old, his works at the CAMH still have a striking resonance today.
“Mel Chin: Rematch” is currently on view in Houston: at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, through March 21; at the Contemporary Arts Museum, through April 19; and at the Asia Society Texas Center, through April 19. “Degrees of Separation” continues at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through May 1.
This review also appeared on the website The Great God Pan is Dead.