Can art stimulate social change? Mel Chin is among the many artists who would say yes, a response that aligns him with practices ranging from the utopian dream of Russian Constructivism to the avant-garde mysticism of Joseph Beuys to every creator of any sort of propaganda art. But he is wary of success in this enterprise, because his aim is not to support a specific ideology, but to enhance opportunities for discourse and change. “I aspire to make art that would be indistinguishable from direct political action some day,” he says, “then to supersede that as fast as possible.”1
Chin’s works of the late 1980s and early 1990s address specific geopolitical, social, and environmental issues and have been called “sculptural witnesses to ecological and political tragedies.”2 Each is weighted with complex iconography that connects contemporary social issues to ideas from alchemy, philosophy, myth, religion, and history; the materials Chin uses come as directly as possible from the cultures he references. Exhaustive research is central to his practice, and learning and remembering are key activities for him.
The Opera of Silence (1988) is typical of these works. Exhibited at the Walker Art Center in 1990 and acquired later that year, it is an oversized replica of a Beijing Opera drum made of hog hides stretched over a wooden armature. Chin and an assistant cut and sewed the hides into a pattern resembling the eagle’s-head emblem of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the backside of the drum is covered with white theatrical makeup, used in the Beijing Opera to signify treachery. The whole massive structure is propped up by a slender device made of bone and wood.
Chin’s references to the CIA and China allude to the ongoing occupation of Tibet by the Chinese, in which the CIA is said to have meddled with disastrous effect, although the agency continues to deny any involvement.3 On the drum, the two superpowers are made inseparable, the patterns of one woven into the structure of the other. The device supporting the weighty instrument is composed of two objects used in traditional Tibetan rituals: a death’s-head staff and a trumpet made from a human bone. Chin’s configuration may be a pun on the balance of power in the conflict, but the chief motif is silence: both Tibetan trumpet and Chinese drum have been made mute, symbolic of the suppression of the Tibetan people by China, and the official denials from both Beijing and Washington, D.C.
Although these references may not be obvious to the viewer, Chin isn’t concerned that his message will be lost. “My intention is to transcend the materials and propel the imagination; so that you look at the sculpture, and its presence sticks in your mind,” he says. “Someday it will come back to you and the message will become clear, like a poem that you don’t understand at the first reading.”4 Chin has continued this tactic in his recent work, which is more directly activist, collective, and ephemeral. For a 1996 project, In the Name of the Place, Chin and a group of collaborators inserted props into the sets of the prime-time television drama Melrose Place. The props functioned as subliminal messages, often with overtly political content—characters snuggled under sheets adorned with a pattern based on the shape of rolled condoms, or received Chinese take-out that came in containers bearing slogans from the Tiananmen Square protest. In such works, Chin’s strategy is “not to subvert, but to assist with a creative process, thus infecting the host with the possibility of options not open for discourse within their existing, rigid, tripartite structures.”5 More than a maker of objects, he sees himself as a catalyst for change.
Quoted in Benito Huerta, ed., Inescapable Histories: Mel Chin, exh. cat. (Kansas City, Missouri: Exhibits USA, 1996), 45. ↩
Thomas McEvilley, ed., Soil and Sky: Mel Chin, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Fabric Workshop, 1993), 4. ↩
Beginning in 1958, the CIA reportedly provided Tibetan rebels with arms and training in guerrilla tactics, only to withdraw support after 1968 when President Richard Nixon decided to seek rapprochement with China. ↩
Quoted in Peter Boswell, Viewpoints: Mel Chin, exh. bro. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1990). ↩
Mel Chin, “My Relation to Joseph Beuys Is Overrated,” in Gene Ray, ed., Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (New York: D.A.P.; Sarasota, Florida: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2001), 136. ↩