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Mel Chin finds trouble (and Solutions)

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Artist Mel Chin

Artist Mel Chin draws inspiration from community activism.

Although artist Mel Chin’s work is often hard to define by a specific medium or style, his methods are usually based in a type of social activism focused on ideas such as ecological restoration and community rejuvenation. Most famous for “Revival Field” (1989) — an attempt at toxic land remediation using hyperaccumulator plants — Chin has also been involved with inserting art into the sets of the television show “Melrose Place,” working with kids in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, attempting to help rebuild the town of Flint, Michigan through recycling and manufacturing.

 Chin visited the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Campus in November as the Dai Ho Chun Endowment for Distinguished Chair in Colleges of Arts & Sciences artist. During his time on campus, Chin held a two-day workshop with students, faculty and community members. It centered on finding creative solutions for local issues. He also spent time in the art building’s studios working on preliminary aspects for an upcoming installation in New York City’s Times Square. Chin’s visit culminated in an energetic, personable and moving public lecture titled “Trouble in Mind,” which covered some of the many works spanning his accomplished career.

I had a chance to sit down with Chin while he was on campus for a brief discussion about his artistic practice and creative philosophy. The following interview has been briefly edited for clarity and length.

A lot of your work is concerned with the effects of lead poisoning, the most recent of which is your current project in Flint. What do you hope to accomplish when you work in such distressed communities?

I look at projects like these on an evolutionary basis. It doesn’t just stop with the execution. It’s not just about addressing lead problems in the water but actually saying something else was lost too. People and jobs were abandoned. The project is an attempt of a poetic return. The idea of taking something empty and making it fulfilled. Fulfillment is hope, and hope can regenerate a group of people beaten down from the conditions under which they’re forced to live. For a collaboration to occur where I can work with the people of Flint and create something meaningful is great.

A lot of people view art and science as distinctly separate, but you combined those two dynamics with “Revival Field.” What do you think about the merging of art and science?

There’s a romanticism –– maybe more in the art world than the science world — that the two can be together. “Revival Field” was such a specific thing. It was an art project that paved the way for replicated field tests so that scientific technology could be created. That’s cool, but it’s okay for science to be science and for art to be art. I think it’s more of a romantic notion on the art side. I’m very respectful of scientists, and I’ve done other projects based on science. I try to show where the parameters are and then work on the ideas collaboratively. How can I convey science in a way to make the data more appreciable or even poetic? It’s not necessarily using science to create an art piece all the time, and it’s not necessarily using art to do science all the time. It’s more complex than that. When there’s a real conjunction, it will be revealed.

How would you describe your artistic practice and preferred medium? You have said before, your work incorporates “the poetics of an idea with the pragmatism of action.”

There is really no preference to any approach because my art is all conceptually based. An idea or concept comes up that occurs through various stimuli. Then I work out the methodology for its execution. It’s piece by piece. The idea has to be provocative or it’s not worth embarking on the time and energy it takes even to render it. If it’s socially or environmentally engaged, it absolutely demands a pragmatic reality. You also want to be free to think up really wild things. You should not be scared by limitations.

Some artists confine themselves to a single medium, like photography or painting, while you see a multidimensional approach as a strength rather than a weakness.

The art world spectrum is very large, and it should not be confined by traditional definitions of what it means to be an artist. It has been broken open for quite a long time. Some artists might chose to focus on traditional mediums because they may be more inclined to prioritize market dynamics, which usually favor more two-dimensional kinds of art rather than something that is time-based or four dimensional and can move around a lot. I think confinement can prove quite successful. I admire many artists who work that way, but I don’t see it as a way I could do it. 

Your art definitely has elements of subversiveness, but it’s not necessarily completely subversive. You often work collaboratively with those in more powerful positions than yourself …

If it’s a collaboration, then let’s take it seriously. It’s not about undermining but rather how to propel your collaborators beyond the parameters they have been given. While helping make art history with television could be subversive, it’s the wrong spirit to go into a project with the intent to undermine. You can be critical, but no harm should be done. If you want to go completely subversive and undermine something, that’s a whole other thing. I’m not going to put a value judgment on that either, but that’s not a collaboration. You have to take it seriously and let the people you’re working with have some say in the matter. 

In your lecture, you mentioned the idea of not overtaking but inserting ...

The insertion of ideas is what I’m talking about. To insert meaning where it might be lacking. To insert complexity where it’s simple. To insert something simple when it needs to have that clarity. I think it’s weighed upon the poetic dynamic. Those can be subjective. It’s collective, and we can all reach that point. 

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming installation in Times Square?

There’s more than one aspect to the project. Sometimes art comes from a tragic happenstance. Look at what we’ve done to the ocean over all this time. There’s this whole huge ocean, and there’s a horrible history that continues to occur within it. It’s about our relationship to nature.