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Mel Chin urges humanity to see the world with interest and criticality in “There’s Something Happening Here”

The conceptual artist’s career-spanning retrospective will run at the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art through July 31.
Photo: A wide shot of a gallery at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art shows visitors walking among and looking at artworks by Mel Chin. At the far end of the gallery, a large portal resembling the door of a bank vault opens into another room. Photos by Hannah Keziah Agustin.

The conceptual artist’s career-spanning retrospective will run at the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art through July 31.

For Mel Chin, the creative act comprises the artist, the object, and the audience. “The purpose of art is engagement,” Chin says, “It is a conversation, a critique to make life have meaning.” In There’s Something Happening Here, running through July 31 at the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art, the conceptual artist exhibits four decades’ worth of his work in the contemporary art scene, engaging with the Madison community through multimodal works that wrestle with the meaning of life in the intertwining of ideas and form in a sophisticated way. Because the idea is what drives the creation of the work, his art is beautifully crafted, poetically layered, and deeply meaningful, all in an effort to call attention to contemporary political, social, and ecological issues and propose alternative ways of addressing problems.

There’s Something Happening Here gives viewers a glimpse into Chin’s creative process, showing his completed works alongside the works of other artists that influenced them and preparatory materials he created along the way. He structured the show this way in an effort to connect with other artists through the Southern Graphics Council International printmaking conference, whose 2022 edition took place in Madison this March. By showing the approaches he used in creating these pieces, Chin wants to put his work in dialogue with his fellow artists, who are doing the same labor of reckoning with the world around them through artmaking. “To be human is to be interested,” he says. During the conference, SCGI presented Chin with its Lifetime Achievement in Printmaking Award. 

“I am willing to expose different layers that are normally hidden,” Chin says, “I am fine with showing mistakes because mistakes are successes.” By showing the different processes that birthed the different pieces, he unveils the messiness of how these beautiful projects came to be, making them approachable even to those who are not well-versed in contemporary art. Chin also unveiled the societal circumstances of his artmaking in a March 17 lecture at MMOCA, during which he recalled conversations that happened during the genesis of these pieces.

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One of the pieces Chin talked about in his lecture was “Myrrha/P.I.A.,” which was originally installed in New York City’s Bryant Park as a commissioned piece by the local government in 1984. Creating this piece involved a lot of working and walking home late at night in what was then a dangerous neighborhood. Chin says, “I made it by hand so that people could watch me bend the metal.” This allowed people to interact with the piece even before it was finished. The name “Myrrha” symbolized the myth from which it was inspired and the metamorphosis the piece underwent, and “P.I.A.” stands for Post-Industrial Age, which was the era it was trying to immortalize. In the making of this 30-foot sculpture, he took a lot of walks alone into the public space to sculpt the steel into this towering figure. Next to “Myrrha/P.I.A.” in MMOCA’s galleries, Chin shows pages of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, with illustrations by Gustave Doré. These inspired the silhouetted body in the piece and the anatomical preparatory studies from plastic skeletons and wires Chin used as models for the final work.

Chin made “Myrrha/P.I.A.” in an attempt to counterpoint patriarchal structures that deny women agency over their bodies. I found its cowering posture to be particularly intriguing because it shows how the female body is made fragile under the male gaze, which sees right through the tenderness.

“Myrrha/P.IA.” by Mel Chin is shown in a gallery at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The large-scale sculpture depicts a body in silhouette and visible bones. A viewer standing near the piece helps to show its size.

Chin is known for his critique. In the “Flag Of The Agricultural Revolution,” Chin recreates the Chinese Communist flag to pay homage to the pro-democracy activists who were massacred by government forces during the infamous 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. In “Revised Post-Soviet Tools To Be Used Against The Unslakeable Thirst of 21st Century Capitalism,” Chin comments on labor by again altering Communist iconography. The hammer and sickle become a wooden stake instead, critiquing capitalist greed and the ecological injustices it produces. In the MMOCA show, Chin presents a print of the piece alongside trial proofs as well as the original hand-carved matrix, a printmaking device that was pressed against ink and then afterward transferred onto the fabric.

In “Night Rap,” he takes apart a police officer’s nightstick and retrofits it with a wireless transmitting microphone. This baton was used in the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. “Night Rap” captures the power dynamics and political relations between the police and entertainers, especially the anti-authoritarian responses hip-hop has offered to police violence. Beside this sculpture is the concept drawing for “Night Rap,” which was chosen as the back cover for Social Text, a quarterly journal that engages creative art with political activism. 

From police brutality to the male gaze to the crackdown on radical ideologies, Mel Chin’s art is impactful, gripping, and necessary. Much of humanity has changed since the 1970s sketch of the “Myrrha/P.I.A.”. We talk on technologically-advanced square boxes where language is flat on a screen and the weight of what is said lacks physicality. Contrasting that, Chin creates work that is raw and real. He gives a body to his ideas. He sketches study after study with his hands, making art that lends form to an unending fight against sociopolitical forces that inhibit us from experiencing total liberation. The body of work does not change and yet still remains relevant, which means our work here is not done. Chin pushes us to examine the world with a critical eye, to be dissatisfied with the injustice we see, for this is the only way we truly become human, when we interact and are interested in the world around us.

“Safehouse Door (Madison variation)” by Mel Chin is shown in a gallery at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The large piece resembles the door of a bank vault, and incorporates materials taken from the wall of a house. It appears to “open” in a wall between two sections of the gallery.

MMoCA Curator of Exhibitions Leah Kolb organized the exhibit with the help and input of Emily Arthur, an Associate Professor of printmaking at UW-Madison, who studied under Chin through a collective called GALA Committee at the University of Georgia. Chin flew from his home base in North Carolina to Madison to create the site-specific centerpiece of the show. Chin created a Madison edition of his “Safehouse Door,” series, excising a part of a wood-framed house scheduled for demolition in Madison’s Bay Creek neighborhood and fitting it with the trappings of a massive bank-vault door. He originally did a Safehouse Door for a community space in New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Not only does this act as a refuge for those who lost their homes after the natural disaster, but it also became a place for communal action and education.

The piece ties in with the Fundred Project, which Chin co-founded in 2008 to draw attention to childhood lead poisoning after learning of the devastating effects of lead-ridden soil in the low-income neighborhoods of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. The “fundreds” (a portmanteau of “fun” and “hundreds”) are blank hundred-dollar bills that Chin invites visitors to color in with their own designs. Lead contamination—especially in drinking water and soils—is a nationwide issue that also affects communities across Wisconsin, urban and rural alike. There is no safe level of lead exposure for human beings, and because lead builds up in a person’s body over time, children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning’s effects on physical health and intellectual development.

Bundled and stacked, the “fundreds” represent a demand that Congress allocate money for lead remediation projects across the country, and they make a case for the value of individual expression in the face of a large-scale societal problem. Chin’s bank vault-like Safehouse Doors reinforce the importance of the money itself, while also creating a symbolic space where people can gather and educate themselves. At MMOCA, that space takes the form of the Madison branch of the Fundred Reserve Bank. “We use the fundreds for policymaker engagement,” Chin says, “It’s not just about raising awareness for parents and children. It is also for legislators to make changes and policy to combat lead poisoning.” His art allows for an opportunity to get local communities civically involved through collective action, including kids across the nation, who draw the futures they want to see and reach political leadership one fundred at a time. These blank Benjamins encourage people to imagine into existence a tomorrow where lead poisoning no longer haunts our communities. All of the fundreds will go to the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, which already has a Fundred reserve. The creation of fundreds in Madison bookends the 14-year project.

Kids and their parents create fundreds for the Madison branch of the Fundred Reserve Bank, seated around a table in the middle of a gallery at the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art. Dozens of the fundreds, which are $100 bills colored in by participants, hang on the wall in the background.

“The issue in this world is about money, about value. Value had to be created,” Chin says, “What’s valuable to you is what’s important. The form of what people hold valuable is currency. What is more valuable than the voice of a person?” 

I talked with Chin in March at MMOCA, holding a blank fundred in my hand. His words echoed through my head as I plummeted into a dilemma of meaning, realizing that the reason why I couldn’t draw a value on my fundred is that under late capitalism, lives are made disposable under the weight of labor. However, in There’s Something Happening Here, Chin offers a glimmer of hope, a silver lining in the tragedies of existence: collective action is the salvation we hang on to. “We have to be interested in the world around us. We have to care,” Chin says “We have to contribute in whatever capacity we can. I just so happened to be an artist.” In this call to come together, we are pulled to have faith in one another’s capacity for care, for attention, and for love.

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