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Mel Chin: Rematch at The New Orleans Museum of Art

Mel Chin’s Rematch, now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, is the artist’s first retrospective, long overdue and particularly prescient this week as a new U.N. report highlights the dire conditions of the Earth created by pollution, energy, and population, among other factors. Chin, while making visually stunning work, strives to create environmental reactions, rather than objects. However, reactions can have effects outside of the artist’s control. For example, Operation Paydirt (2006–ongoing) has the ambitious and specific goal for “New Orleans to become a place where no child will ever be threatened by lead in soil, and a city capable of rescuing other cities by setting an example.”[1] The outcomes that Chin creates, intended or unintended, are the actual artistic output of this precocious artist, rather than the traditional objects one finds in the museum.

Mel Chin, Safehouse, 2008-2001, Saint Roch neighborhood, New Orleans. Photo by Mel Chin.

Mel Chin. Safehouse, 2008-2001; Saint Roch neighborhood, New Orleans. Photo by Mel Chin.

Operation Paydirt is an attempt to design and innovate a replicable solution to the problem of lead poisoning, which is prevalent throughout New Orleans, especially in poorer areas. Caused by lead in the soil (from gasoline, paint, and other emissions), there is a growing body of research linking lead exposure in childhood with a host of problems later in life, including juvenile delinquency, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. Though originally a native of Houston, Texas, Chin first became intimate with New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction and the Federal Levee Failure. “…When I got here I was not even remotely prepared for the level of devastation I encountered. Even months later, I felt a sense of inadequacy. It was like, how do you do something on this scale? I became obsessed, coming back again and again, to try to come up with a project of equivalent magnitude.”[2] Chin, with the help of scientists, posited a procedure dubbed “T.L.C.” or Treat, Lock, and Cover, that could be a possible solution to lead poisoning. Using an organic phosphate mixture made partially of fish bones, this substance binds the lead and renders it harmless.

Chin’s research on lead poisoning inspired Safehouse (2008–10), an installation in a blighted house in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans during the Prospect.1 Biennial. Safehouse acted as headquarters for Fundred Dollar Bill Project, an immense undertaking that placed power in the hands of the children who were most affected by lead poisoning. Children in New Orleans, and now throughout the country, were asked to draw on one-hundred-dollar bill-templates. Chin has announced that when he has collected $300 million of these “fundreds,” he will take them to Congress to trade in for the real money it will take to remediate soil across the country.

Mel Chin, Diagram for Revival Field, 1990, diazo blue line print on paper, 19 x 28 1/4 x 1/4 inches, Courtesy of the artist.

Mel Chin. Diagram for Revival Field, 1990; diazo blue line print on paper, 19 x 28 1/4 x 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Operation Paydirt could be said to be a result of Chin’s earlier work Revival Field (1991). Revival Field grew out of Chin’s conversations with Rufus L. Chaney, a scientist at the USDA Agriculture Research Service who studied plant species that remediated toxins from soil. Revival Field was conceived of as a sculpture, but it grew into a replicable project, with iterations in Minnesota (1991), the Netherlands (1992), and Pennsylvania (1993). Chin and Chaney developed a circular inner and outer pattern of plants intersected by a walkway in the shape of a cross. The shape of the earthwork itself is a cosmological form, suggesting a transition from one state to the next—in this case, from toxic soil into renewed earth.

Mel Chin, Fan Club, 1994, ash wood and blood on Chinese silk, ink on paper, 37 1/2 x 60 x 3 inches. Courtesy of Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Museum purchase with funds from the Weatherspoon Art Museum Acquisition Endowment, 1999.

Mel Chin. Fan Club, 1994; ash wood and blood on Chinese silk, ink on paper; 37 1/2 x 60 x 3 in. Courtesy of Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

One of the great strengths of this show is the astonishingly wide variety of mediums. Miranda Lash, curator of the retrospective, writes in the catalogue, “Chin describes his willingness to change as a survival strategy, no different from that of a cell, or a virus, which, upon encountering danger or an obstacle, adapts in order to keep reproducing.”[3] This adaptation is based on research and responds to the concept at hand. For example, Fan Club (1994) is made out of ash wood and blood on Chinese silk, and is an interpretation of a Chinese hand fan, which is traditionally made of bamboo. Instead, Chin uses ash, a wood that is used to make baseball bats. Fan Club is a response to the murder of Vincent Chin, an Asian American who was beaten to death in Detroit by autoworkers in 1982.

Chin’s large-scale public works walk a fine line between hubris and genius. However, in order to solve the pressing environmental problems of our time, great hubris may be what is needed. Operation Paydirt continues to work toward total soil remediation in New Orleans but has yet to achieve its goal. Chin’s work triggers a mechanism, broader than the world of art, that may cause great change. Whether that change is what we hope for remains to be seen.


[1] Doug McCash, “Artist Mel Chin defends his ‘Safehouse’ at KKProjects,” New Orleans Times Picayune, April 12, 2011.

[2] D. Eric Bookhardt, “From Field Testing to Even Exchange: Mel Chin Discusses Operation Paydirt and Safehouse,Art Papers 33 no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), pp 34-39.

[3] Miranda Lash, “Endless Rematch: The Perpetual Evolution of Mel Chin,” in Mel Chin Rematch. Edited by Miranda Lash. Exh. Cat. New Orleans Museum of Art. 2014., pg 20.

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