Mel Chin Believes Art Should Be Empathetic

The artist and first William Wilson Corcoran visiting professor entertains and challenges audience at the Corcoran School of Art and Design.

Mel Chin
Mel Chin is the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design inaugural William Wilson Corcoran visiting professor. (William Watkins/GW Today)
October 30, 2016

By Menachem Wecker

It’s impossible to listen to artist Mel Chin for an extended period without noticing his unlikely blend of traits. He is funny, and he speaks with an informal vocabulary that references pop culture in a manner more typically associated with young people. But often within the same breath, he launches into a discussion about sobering issues ranging from lead poisoning to gun violence to economic inequality.

Sanjit Sethi, director of GW’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, introduced Mr. Chin, who is GW’s inaugural William Wilson Corcoran visiting professor, before a lecture Wednesday at the Corcoran. Soon Mr. Chin was moseying up to the podium listening to headphones and dancing to the music. Pretending to be oblivious to the audience, Mr. Chin sang Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off,” from her album “1989.”

“Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play,” Mr. Chin sang. “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”

He then turned to the audience, as if surprised suddenly by his whereabouts, and apologized. “It’s kind of groovy,” he said. “It’s all right.”

As the audience of about 100 was trying to decide what to make of Mr. Chin’s shenanigans, he began to talk about the year that lent the album its title. There was the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which killed at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of students. Then there was the exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography planned at the Corcoran, which was canceled after some politicians and trustees found the homoerotic works obscene.

(The Corcoran became part of George Washington University in 2014.)

While others in the art world protested the Corcoran in 1989, Mr. Chin decided to come teach at the school. “They were just trying to learn things here,” he said. “We made something.”

In his art, Mr. Chin displays an important empathy for his subjects and their communities and an understanding of collaborative process, explained Mr. Sethi, who as a University of Georgia graduate student was part of Mr. Chin’s GALA project that placed artwork on Melrose Place sets.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to have Mel here for the year,” Mr. Sethi said.

Among works that Mr. Chin collaborated on with his Corcoran students in 1989 was “Forgetting Tiananmen, Kent State, Tlatelolco,” for which wreaths were covered in plaster. They then threw the plaster against a wall and pounded the remains with hammers, Mr. Chin said. He displayed images of 1989 Chinese brutality, where he said, “the state took arms against its kids,” as he discussed the work.

“While students made something, they could never forget what it was about,” he said.

The next slide was of Chin’s “Shape of a Lie,” essentially a bronze sculpture of Mr. Chin’s tongue. Soon he was distinguishing between art historians and “art hysterical” people, as he explained how his tongue was part of a piece that amounted to a “portrait of a lie.” A lie, he said, could be “when you’re unprepared for a lecture, like I am.”

But Mr. Chin was certainly prepared for this lecture, as well as the subsequent Q & A, during which he detailed works he has made over a span of more than 40 years. There were plenty of one-liners: “There is some inflation in the art market; let’s admit it.” “We’re in D.C., so you have to have your acronyms.” “I’m sorry if you’re here from Halliburton. I didn’t mean it. Maybe I did.” “I know some of you are in the art world. You probably have no friends.”

But each time, with barely a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Chin was returning to troubling subjects, and the works he made to respond to those challenges and horrors.

One piece, “HOME y SEW 9,” provides a “complete gunshot trauma unit.” Mr. Chin “hid” the Ace bandage, IV needle, medicines, angiocatheter and other items inside a GLOCK 9mm handgun. The image of a gun is so provocative immediately that it’s difficult to make art on the subject, Mr. Chin said of his “deconstructed” gun.

He showed a photograph of himself walking into the ocean wearing not a bathing but a dress suit. “Yeah. I got wet,” he said of the incident, which took place at a conference in Florida about rising water levels and global warming. “I needed to get the suit cleaned. Whatever.”

In an interview with GW Today after the talk, Mr. Chin said that the sense of humor he has cultivated so well didn’t come to him naturally. “Nothing comes naturally. If you want to survive, you should understand humor and gravity,” he said. “I learned to survive. That was necessary.”

Speaking about another work that involved a sniper rifle and reflections on HIV/AIDS, Mr. Chin noted that raising awareness is just the beginning. “Here we are being artists, trying to do good work transparently, and yet things still go down,” he said.

Then he was performing spoken word poetry, which he assured the audience came from rapper Snoop Dogg rather than 19th-century English Romantic poet John Keats. Thereafter, when the audio failed to work for several clips from the TV show Melrose Place that Mr. Chin played, he chose to narrate the scenes himself—to much laughter when he impersonated actor Heather Locklear.

While discussing the artistic collective GALA (Georgia Los Angeles), which created the paintings that were used for props, Mr. Chin filled in for the real audio track. When Ms. Locklear’s character chose at one point to abandon her dance partner to network, Mr. Chin mimed, “She’s going to walk away from love to meet with Artforum.”

Of Melrose Place, he noted that the significance of writers, producers and artists so trusting each other in the creative process. “That is historic,” he said.

Mr. Chin concluded by talking about a major work that addresses lead poisoning.

Traveling to New Orleans post-Katrina, he was as affected by interviewing survivors about how the hurricane changed their lives as he was by seeing neighborhoods washed away. The devastation, he said, was due to the “irresponsibility of many, all of us perhaps.”

He struggled to find aesthetic inspiration. “I felt I was unworthy because I couldn’t come up with a creative response,” he said. “You should never track down disaster to make art.”

He would subsequently settle on a problem that had plagued New Orleans’ inner city long before the hurricane: lead poisoning.

In “Safehouse,” Mr. Chin created an empty vault in a home that residents filled with $100 bills that they fabricated. Lead levels in the house were nearly 20 times legal limits. “This was a dark crisis before [Katrina] happened,” Mr. Chin said, noting that 30 to 50 percent of New Orleans’ inner city was affected by lead poisoning.

Of the “safehouse,” Mr. Chin spoke in almost mystical terms. “This house needed to be made into art,” he said. And then he was talking about a panel he organized with lead experts and health department officials, as well as a party he threw in the neighborhood, which “packed the street” when the work opened.

The work and the project Operation Paydirt/Funded Dollar Bill  have already attracted more than 45 million contributors. “Maybe you can add your one,” Mr. Chin told the audience.

When he arrived in D.C. to teach at GW, Mr. Chin found worse lead concentrations than he’d encountered in New Orleans. “You know in your soul you’re not done,” he said of the work ahead of him.

For the next year, GW students, and the broader D.C. community, will be assisting him. An exhibit of the “dollar bills” will open at the Corcoran next February.