By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Conceptual master Mel Chin's first major retrospective, titled "Mel Chin: Rematch," opens Thursday (Feb. 20) evening at The New Orleans Museum of Art. You may remember Chin. He's the Houston-born artist who installed an enormous, round, working bank vault door on a small shotgun house in the St. Roch neighborhood six years ago. The startling public sculpture titled "Safe House" was a smash. And now the big door is back, hung in the ground-floor gallery at the New Orleans Museum of Art among scores of other works by Chin.
In Batman terms, Chin is The Riddler. He produces sculpture that demands a considerable amount of decoding. Take "Our Strange Flower of Democracy," a huge sculpture hanging in the museum's atrium. NOMA modern art curator Miranda Lash, who organized the exhibition, led a preview walk-through of the unfinished exhibit Wednesday. As she stood beneath the “strange flower,” she explained that the sculpture is shaped like a devastating "daisy cutter" bomb; the kind once used by the American army to blast helicopter landing zones in the jungle of Vietnam. "Daisy Cutters" were slowly carried to the earth by parachute.
But the life-size bomb replica at NOMA isn't made from steel as you might expect; it's shaped from hundreds of bamboo strips. There’s a reason for that. Back in World War II, certain island dwellers in the South Pacific became enchanted with the way the warring Japanese and American armies dropped supplies from airplanes by parachute. To symbolically lure their own gifts from the heavens, they built imitation bamboo airplanes. As Lash explained, groups of such worshipers were called "cargo cults."
The Riddler’s giant bomb is a cargo cult cautionary tale. The sculpture says: be careful what you wish for. Because, longing for the sky-born gifts of a military occupation may not always work out exactly as hoped.
In a similar culture-blurring vein, Chin created a working road race-style video game that substitutes the geometric patterns on traditional Eurasian carpets for a formula car racetrack. Museum visitors can play it. Chin also created an over-sized Japanese fan, with ribs made from a sliced baseball bat.
In a pointedly political comment, he created an authentic-looking handgun sculpture that, when disassembled, becomes the first aid kit for a gunshot wound. He also produced an elegantly macabre necklace made from real gold and rubies that reproduces the entrance and exit wounds of a gunshot.
Back in the 1990s, Chin, who is 63, convinced the producers of the prime-time soap opera "Melrose Place" to allow him to sneak somewhat subversive political artworks into the backgrounds of scenes of the show. Heather Locklear meets conceptualism. After the subtle TV placements had gone on for two years, Lash said, the show's writers composed an episode in which the characters attended a museum opening where the artworks that had secretly appeared on the show were on display. To complete the meta moment, Chin can be seen in the background of one of the scenes. NOMA provides a wide-screen TV and a rust-orange couch for your viewing enjoyment.
Chin's number one claim to fame is a 1990 ecological experiment that he conducted in a St. Paul Minnesota landfill. Chin erected a circular fence. In cooperation with scientists, he selected plants that were reputed to have the ability to suck the heavy metal poisons out of the soil. He seeded the fenced area with the cleansing plants. There's a scale model of the project in the exhibit.
The odd garden may not have returned the soil to a pristine state, but Chin's experiment called attention to ongoing soil pollution. That's the point of public conceptualism. It poetically delivers ideas. Chin's St. Roch "Safe House" was meant, in part, to remind city dwellers of the presence of debilitating lead in the soil.
Lash said that at least one critic of the "Revival Field" project pronounced that Chin's scientific research site wasn't really art at all. Which is a peculiar thing for a late 20th-century art observer to say, since conceptual art is based on objects that often don't appear to be artworks. Way back in the 19-teens, a devilishly subversive genius named Marcel Duchamp displayed a signed urinal that he declared to be an original sculpture. He called it "Fountain." He did the same sort of thing with a hat rack and a snow shovel. Duchamp was so far out that if he came back to life today, he'd still be considered a weirdo. Not surprisingly, Duchamp is one of Chin's heroes.
Occasionally, Chin's riddle-spinning gets the better of him. His artworks based on select characters from Dante's ‘Inferno,’ the poison that killed Socrates, the silhouettes of the American presidents who served after the institution of the Monroe Doctrine and the alchemical implications of the planets will appeal mostly to those museum goers who are able to answer "Jeopardy" $1000 questions before the television contestants do. Which, of course, leaves most of us out. Chin's saving grace is that his design skills are outstanding. So the sculptures themselves are engaging, even when the subject matter strays beyond obscurity.