Mel Chin, Safe, 2005, oil on Belgian linen, gilded wood and plaster, weathered wood, nails, 11' 1“ x 7' x 1' 6”.

Mel Chin, Safe, 2005, oil on Belgian linen, gilded wood and plaster, weathered wood, nails, 11' 1“ x 7' x 1' 6”.

Mel Chin

Mel Chin, Safe, 2005, oil on Belgian linen, gilded wood and plaster, weathered wood, nails, 11' 1“ x 7' x 1' 6”.

“I was wondering, how do you get an idea into a system, and let it replicate within that system,” Mel Chin once remarked in an interview. He was talking about In the Name of the Place, 1995–97, a project for which, in collaboration with the GALA Committee, he “smuggled” art objects into the TV series Melrose Place as props. They conveyed messages you wouldn’t expect to find in a prime-time series: A takeout container, for instance, bore the slogan HUMAN RIGHTS/TURMOIL in Chinese. A similar strategy of using forms and ideas as viruses to infiltrate representational systems could be seen at work in Chin’s recent show in Cologne. Cluster (4 pieces), 2004–2006, for example, consists of pieces of jewelry based on artillery wounds, such as the cone-shaped entry and exit holes of a bullet from the American Civil War or the scattershot injuries caused by an antipersonnel cluster bomb of the sort used in the Bosnian War. The unconventional and delicate (in both senses) way in which these objects of adornment are given their color and shape is contrasted with photographic documentation of the actual wounds, recalling the age-old divide between those who suffer from wars and those who profit from them.

Likewise, the depredations of colonialism, which affect nature as well as human beings, are often masked by the idealization and romanticization of wilderness—as Chin’s installation Safe, 2005, shows in the case of Belgium’s colonial rule in the Congo. Weathered wooden planks almost entirely conceal an oil painting with an idyllic depiction of the Congo River and enclosed in a heavy gold frame featuring plant and animal motifs but also representations of the tools of colonialist “taming,” such as a whip. Meanwhile, the planks themselves are perforated with a profusion of rusty nails pointing toward the painting behind them—though this destructive act of magical invocation doesn’t so much as scratch the surface of the work itself. Those who might perhaps wish to protect themselves by recourse to a nail fetish here are clearly not protected; the only thing safe here is the idealized image of colonial power.

Chin’s series of drawings “9-11/9-11,” 2002, and the animated film of the same name from 2007 (created in cooperation with Chip Schneider and the Plano Visual Estudio de Animación in Santiago, Chile) bring together two historical events linked by their date: the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 and the US-backed military putsch against socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Packaged as a love story, Chin’s work uses hand-drawn black-and-white images to narrate these two man-made collective traumas.

“Making objects and marks is also about making possibilities, making choices—and is one of the last freedoms we have. To provide that is one of the functions of art,” Chin is quoted in the show’s press release. Art for him is both a representation of complex political, ecological, and social structures, and an attractive lure tempting us to engage with these topics. In recent years, Chin’s work has shown an increased emphasis on art as a form of activism, as in Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project/Safehouse, 2008–10. In order to support a project to clean up lead-contaminated ground in New Orleans, Chin invited people to design their own dollar bills that ultimately are to be transported to and then exchanged for real dollars by the US Congress—a gesture that in itself is a striking representation of how art can raise consciousness and spread like a virus in unwonted contexts.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.