The artist’s new show at the Queens Museum manages to put a spotlight on community chaos and create seductive objects out of it.
Mel Chin’s work speaks to the ways in which communities—human and animal, ecological and urban, colonized and colonizer—are at each other’s mercy. In his new exhibit All Over the Place, which opened Sunday at the Queens Museum, Chin examines how the actions of one group can devastate another. But he also pays careful attention to the mirror images of destruction: the ability to hope, and to rebuild.
“There’s a lot of artists working in the social-political field, and it’s a little bit of a hammer to the head sometimes,” said Manon Slome, a curator of the exhibit and the founder of No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that transforms New York City spaces into pop-up galleries. “What’s incredible about Mel is that he’s a consummate craftsman. His mind, his aesthetic, is really beautiful, so there’s a kind of seducing you into the artwork.”
Chin is clearly driven by social and ecological concerns, and his work is sharp, intricate, and layered. He pays a great deal of attention to ecological damage, and to how humans are both victims as well as agents of harm. For the exhibit section titled The Artifice of Facts and Belief, Chin crafted a shell out of Parisian lace structured to look like high-end lingerie: delicate and costly. The shell itself was modeled after a turtle which has become an endangered species; its home is in war-torn regions of the Middle East. Over the lace, Chin depicted ancient patterns once painted on the skin of women in Baghdad. The symbols serve as a reminder that there are humans, too, bound up in this place that has become inhabitable even for animals with shells.
Some of Chin’s works are explicitly tied to advocacy. In Flint Fit, he takes on the effects of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan by attempting to show how, through innovation and inter-community outreach, the scars of corruption and deprivation can be mitigated. Residents in Flint are still using bottled water for cooking, bathing, and drinking, after high lead levels were discovered in the city’s water supply four years ago (on Friday, the state announced it would no longer be giving free water bottles out to residents, leading to a backlash from those in the city who still do not believe their water is safe to drink).
In addition to placing an emotional burden on residents, this has generated waste in the form of countless plastic bottles. Through Chin’s efforts, over 90,000 used water bottles were collected by the Flint community. The bottles were then sent to Greensboro, North Carolina, where they were turned into recycled fiber, and then into fabric.
Tracy Reese, a New York fashion designer and Michigan native, then used the fabric to design a clothing collection for Flint Fit. For the actual sewing and manufacturing of the pieces, Reese worked with the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center, a nonprofit in Flint that employs residents in the local community.
Reese’s hats, skirts, dresses, and crop tops are all on display at the museum, and the mannequins stand around (or, in one case, are poised to dive into) a topographical map of New York City’s aqueduct system. Over the map hangs a metal cast of the Flint River the color of rust.
“We can’t create an industry with a museum,” Chin said, “but it’s a prototype. This is a collective project engineered to show it can be done.” He wanted to drive home the ways communities that are underserved by their governments are also underserved in their environments, which are slowly being poisoned or eroded.
“It’s not enough to point the finger,” Slome said. “It’s what you can do about it, and letting the very people who are affected have a voice in what could happen to their communities. It’s a real symbol of the way his work takes you though beauty, complexity, and how you as an individual are complicit.”
“While there’s so much in the show that seems overwhelming about what the negative elements of human society has wrought, I also think that there is incredible hope in some of the intellectual passages [Chin] makes,” said Laura Raicovich, one of the exhibit’s curators. “That out of the crisis in Flint we could create a new economy there. There is a lot that is quite daunting about Mel’s show, but it also provides these moments of hope.”
Mel Chin’s All Over the Place is on exhibit at the Queens Museum through August 12, 2018.
A previous version of this story misspelled curator Manon Slome’s surname.