Mel Chin: What Does It Take to be Unmoored

Wake by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance. Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.
Wake by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance. Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.
Unmoored by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance.
Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.
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ART021 Shanghai 2018

As part of a multi-location exhibition Mel Chin: All Over the Place, co-produced by the Queens Museum and No Longer Empty, Mel Chin takes over Times Square to open a physical and virtual gateway to the future of human existence, inviting participants to contemplate their place within the world’s transforming climate.

TEXT: Banyi Huang
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

Wake by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance. Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.

 

If there is one place that New York residents go out of their ways to avoid, Times Square would be top of the list. Wiped of any historical trace or character, it is packed with clueless tourists and commercial traps. At the same time, by virtue of its representing the face of New York, Times Square is also perceived to be the most public, visible, and impactful place in the entire city. That is why both corporate advertisements and personally-motivated acts congregate there. These paradoxical impulses lie at the heart of Mel Chin’s public art project Wake and Unmoored (2018), commissioned by Times Square Arts. Presented in collaboration with the non-profit organisation No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum, these works are ambitious attempts to expand the awareness of global environmental crises. Moreover, they also highlight the public’s general indifference and the challenges facing technologically-mediated activism in our current political climate.

Amidst giant Victoria Secret billboards and selfie sticks, what appears to be a colossal animal carcass rises out of nowhere. Walking closer, one is confronted with a sculptural installation featuring a female masthead and wooden shipwrecked remains. The head, turned slightly downwards and contemplative, is connected to its undulating body via an animatronics mechanism. Whereas the ship is fashioned after the USS Nightingale, a 19th century American expedition and merchant ship, the figurehead is modelled after the likeness of Jenny Lind, a celebrity Swedish opera singer who graced the bow of the Nightingale. While carved figureheads served to demonstrate a ship’s identity, wealth, and power in a non-literate society, and can be traced back to Greek and Roman periods, the Lind figurehead specifically signifies the height of Euro-American expansionism and colonial pursuits. During the American Civil War, the Nightingale was notoriously captured off the coast of Africa carrying close to one thousand slaves, a large number of whom had perished due to abominable conditions. Through Wake, Chin elaborately stages haunting remains of a neglected historical past, tracing the ruthless exploitation of bodies that upheld the global trade of gunpowder and cotton.

 

Wake by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance. Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.

 

Here, a variety of mixed-media technologies are deployed to showcase the collapse of different temporalities. If Wake relies on its concrete sculptural form and massive scale to forcibly implant a cross-section from the development of global trade, Unmoored uses virtual and augmented reality to illustrate a possible future. Made in collaboration with Microsoft HoloLens, the work allows viewers to download an app on their phones and observe a Times Square submerged under water. Floating on top of the bustling plaza is a nautical fleet of boats, including the USS Nightingale, as well as microscopic sea-life, calmly passing by as if such an apocalyptic landscape has always been the norm. Chin’s drowned world appears to postulate: we can no longer afford to contemplate the consequences of global warming from a safe distance.

Asides from the few Microsoft headsets that were handed out at the opening event, most viewers can only access Unmoored through its app. Waving their phones around, giddy navigators of the AR-enhanced animation seem to blend seamlessly into the sea of tourists taking photos and selfies, which might equally be utilizing AR-based apps like Snapchat and Facebook. Guy Debord defines the spectacle as the substitution of lived experience with image representation, which often takes the means of innovative technological apparatuses that answer to the internal dynamics of industrial capitalism[1]. In actuality, the line between mass media industries that keep users preoccupied, passive, and thereby isolated, and critical artistic practices that seek to inverse the spectacle with the very same medium, is very fine. As Chin states at a press conference, his aim is not to debate the legitimacy of climate change itself, but rather to “provoke a question: How will you rise?” It suggests that radical resistance is rooted upon self-introspection, simultaneously revealing the ease with which critical gestures are co-opted by technological regimes of entertainment and individuality.

 

Unmoored by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance.
Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.

 

The image of a catastrophic flood, having been thoroughly saturated by biblical narratives and dystopian Hollywood movies like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), provides not so much a shock as an affirmation of our collective imagination. As such, the effectiveness of the project resides not in considering Unmoored in isolation, but rather the way it relates to Wake as an integral whole. The same logic of indifference that allowed for the enslaving of other human beings can be found in the denial of the havoc wreaked on the environment. In fact, Chin’s bigger conceptual goal lies in exposing the achievements of European modernity, namely science, technology, and globalization, as active contributors to the formation of hegemonic identity and our collective demise. The causal relations between progress and aftermath coincide with David Foster Wallace’s controversial article “The Uninhabitable Earth” [New York Magazine, 9 July 2017]. In it, the author presents cataclysmic outcomes of climate change, such as extreme heat stress, the release of pre-civilisational plagues when the arctic permafrost melts, and the ocean’s absorption of toxic carbon, not as sudden ruptures, but as continuations of pre-existing human conditions. If we don’t consider human’s deep interconnectedness with other beings in the world, or in Chin’s words, ‘unmoor’ ingrained patterns of thought and behavior, a submerged world could only be one of many inconceivable scenarios.

Many scientists and thinkers are taking present-day environmental crises as the occasion to rethink modernity, coining the term Anthropocene. Some regard it as a new geological era, in which human activity impacts the earth in catastrophically detrimental ways. At the core of this accelerated movement is an instrumental view of technology, which, according to Martin Heidegger, sees nature and human beings as static standing reserves for technical operations, and ultimately, tools for dominance and control. In contrast, a more sustainable framework is to understand technology as “revealing”, the process of bringing forth the essence of something[2]. In a way, Chin’s projects constitute a reconfiguration of technology and materiality—his vision is a state of laying bare critical connections between a historical past and a dystopian future. They also acknowledge the inevitable apathy of passersby who choose not to engage with the artworks, or see them as mere playthings. After all, those are the paradoxical sides to human nature.

 

[1] Debord, Guy, Guy Debord, and Ken Knabb. 2014. The society of the spectacle.

[2] Heidegger, Martin. 2013. The question concerning technology, and other essays.

 

 

About the artist

Chin is a conceptual artist known for the broad range of approaches in his art, including works that require multi-disciplinary, collaborative teamwork and works that conjoin cross-cultural aesthetics with complex ideas. Chin received a B.S. from Peabody College, Nashville, TN.

His work has been widely exhibited nationally, and internationally, including at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Menil Collection, Houston, TX; Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, NY; The Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, PA; Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, PA; Station Museum, Houston, TX; Frederieke Taylor Gallery, New York, NY; Museum Het Domein, Sittard Netherlands; Thomas Rehbein Galerie, Cologne, Germany; The Nave Museum, Victoria, TX; Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, NC; and New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, among others.

Chin has received many grants and awards, including those from National Endowment for the Arts, The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, Creative Capital, New York Foundation for the Arts, Joan Mitchell Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, among others, and several honorary doctorates.

 

 


 

Banyi Huang is born in Beijing. She is now a free-lance writer, curator, and translator based in New York. She also sometimes dabbles in 3D printing, interactive design, and other technologies that produce new forms, functions, and modes of being. She is currently pursuing an MA in art history and curatorial studies at Columbia University. She is interested in looking at the human body and the formation of identity/performativity within our mediatized and technological landscape.

 

 

 
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