Critics’ Picks

Mel Chin, Safehouse, 2008, existing house, stainless steel, steel, wood, plywood, Gatorboard, lead-encapsulation paint, automotive body and paint finishes, brass thumbtacks, 6,000 unique “Fundred Dollar Bills,” 18' x 22' x 40'.

New Orleans

Mel Chin

Life is Art Foundation
Multiple locations
November 1–January 18

New Orleans is one of the most lead-polluted cities in the US. Nearly eighty-six thousand regional properties don't meet EPA lead standards. Addressing this environmental hazard is Mel Chin’s Safehouse, 2008, a residence painted completely white, on a once-abandoned lot in the neighborhood of St. Roch. An enormous, circular portion of this tabula rasa–cum–house facade has been cut out and mounted on a massive hinge, to form a mammoth bank-vault-like door that opens onto a mostly barren front yard sprinkled with jagged green shrubbery. In an elaborate performance piece enacted during the opening weekend of the Prospect.1 biennial, five participants dressed as security guards pulled up to the front of the house and ordered the audience to stand back as they ceremoniously opened the vault to reveal Chin and his team sitting amid thousands of fake hundred-dollar bills created by locals.

As part of Operation Paydirt, 2008, viewers are invited to contribute to the growing stash of “fundreds” in the Safehouse, until it attains a symbolic three hundred million dollars—the estimated cost of treating New Orleans’s soil for lead contamination. For the next stage of the project, an armored truck will collect these bills on a cross-country tour, arriving at the steps of Congress with a request for an even exchange with valid US currency. This type of work is a natural progression from Chin's environmentally remedial projects such as S.P.A.W.N., 2001–2003, in Detroit, and Revival Field, 1990–1993, in Minnesota. By gathering work from individuals nationwide, Chin metaphorically reverses the post-Katrina diaspora, while fighting to provide suitable land—eventually encouraging residents to return home. Safehouse becomes a sculptural signifier for far-reaching and monumental political engagement that has the potential to truly transform a polluted land, while immediately calling attention to what is most valuable in our society. Among some of the most dynamic work found within the biennial, Chin’s venture creates an effective synergy between aesthetics and activism.