Mel Chin arrives at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on an unusually hot day in March, wearing a dark suit, dark shoes and dark glasses, both dapper and nondescript. The artist is in town to give the Stephen Fleischman Lecture at the MMoCA and this afternoon is showing me around his exhibit, something is happening herewhich runs until July 31.
It’s the kind of pleasant surprise you sometimes get when writing for a newspaper. It’s the kind of offer you should just say “yes” to, no matter how busy you think you are. It’s like the author of a novel coming to your reading group or Euclid explaining triangles to you.
Chin borrows a mask from reception – the masks are still “on” inside the museum even though Dane County has lifted its mandate – and we climb the spectacular white stairs of the museum to an exhibit at the top.
There, the original drawings of his new graphic 9-11/9-11 are stacked in two columns, framed in stainless steel, reminiscent of the twin towers themselves. The drawings have never been exhibited this way before (it’s the brainchild of MMoCA curator Leah Kolb). “Maybe that’s the right way to do it,” Chin says.
As we walk towards the second floor gallery, Chin stops in front of the menacing spider-like sculpture which confronts/greets/overlooks the visitor upon entering. It’s called “Cabinet of Craving,” and without Chin by my side, I’d probably just walk past it with an internal “hmm” and a shrug.
But as Chin unveils the layers of meaning behind the piece, it makes sense. The piece began as a tribute to the large sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, who used spider shapes in her work, as well as glass display cases. One is here too, a tall glass display case in the spider’s body, atop graceful lacquered oak legs and sculpted Queen Anne style legs that turn the spider into a piece of furniture. The showcase houses a tea service.
Sometimes art “creates a question,” says Chin. In this case, it’s “What kind of teapot and what is it on?” A question that is both simple and complex.
The 1843 Bone China English Tea Set on a Silver Tray depicts the English desire for tea, Chinese desire for money, trade imbalances, the English smuggling opium into China, the Opium Wars, the ensuing dependency crisis – all contributing to the rise of the British Empire and the collapse of China. It was such a painful and shameful story that it was rarely discussed, Chin says, and he thought art was the way to go.
While “Cabinet of Craving” may seem remote from the news at first glance, it is “the addiction monster we are facing again now, with the fentanyl and opioid crisis,” observes Chin. “He dominates, in attack position, he is ready to pounce, a nightmare that arises from within household objects.”
The artist speaks softly but deliberately as we walk through the gallery, explaining “how an idea or a way of being is always ripe for criticism”. He points out that his explanation of all work is not the only interpretation. Viewers have their own readings, and “Sometimes these bring you closer to meaning – because art is a relationship of ideas.”
Ideas, though often at the heart of a Chin piece, are also translated into action.
His Finance initiative is a participatory project, based on a trip Chin took to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, “to help, not to make art,” he stresses. There, he worried about the pervasiveness of lead poisoning, how it affects so many children, and the need for government action to pay for the elimination of lead from our everyday environments. .
Chin describes Fundred as “a drawing project,” and it is; everyone is invited to draw their own design on a blank $100 bill template. It is also “a desire to transform policies” and to promote expression, in particular the creativity of children.
The action has evolved to bring families and children before their congressional leaders to advocate for lead policies, including the Lead Free Housing for Children Act 2021.
The actually drawn Fundreds head to the “Fundred Reserve,” an elaborate bank-like exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the coin medium is cataloged as “paper, hemp twine, white oak, bronze, silk, brass , pigment , patina, polystyrene, wood.
“I designed this project,” Chin says. “But I am only the deliverer of their voices.”
By the numbers
Chin’s Years of Art, MMoCA Retrospective Features: 43
Dimensions of the “Cabinet of Craving”: 9 x 14 x 14 feet
Number of Chinese opium addicts in 1906: 13.5 million and about 27% of the country’s men
Fundreds that have been drawn so far: 500,000+
Funds drawn for the MMoCA exhibition to date: 2,500
Where you can see Mel Chin’s Stephen Fleischman Lecture: tinyurl.com/chinlecture