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NOMA displays retrospective on conceptual artist Mel Chin

24th March 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

The New Orleans Museum of Art is showcasing “Mel Chin: Rematch,” a presentation of 40 years of the conceptual artist’s work.

The exhibit opened at NOMA on February 21 and will remain on display until May 25. Chin, who was born in Houston to Chinese parents, is a conceptual artist who works in a variety of mediums ranging from sculpture to television to video games.

“His art is not confined to one medium or one material,” said Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art at NOMA. “His ideas dictate the form.”

Chin has ties to New Orleans and his art reflects that. He visited the city shortly after Hurricane Kat­rina. In an address to the National Art Education Assoc­iation Con­vention in 2008, he described standing amidst the ruins of the Ninth Ward and feeling “helpless and inadequate.”

“Being an artist was not enough to deal with the tragedy that was before me,” Chin said.

After that initial feeling of hopelessness, Chin kept returning to New Orleans and he learned disturbing truths about the amount of lead in the soil. 30 percent of the city’s children were being exposed to toxic amounts of lead.

“The disaster was in the soil before the disaster,” Chin said.

In 2008, he initiated Operation Paydirt (a.k.a the Fundred Dollar Bill Project) to support awareness and create solutions for lead contamination and poisoning. Studies indicate lead poisoning contributes to learning disabilities and violent behavior in children.

After Katrina, Chin asked Dr. Howard Mielke of Tulane Univ­ersity how much it would cost to fix the level of lead contamination in New Orleans. Mielke said $300 million. Since Chin did not have the money, he proposed the idea that people around the country design fake $100 bills until this currency totaled $300 million.

When the project finally reached that goal, Chin would deposit it in Washington and ask the government to match that donation in real money. Since each individual is only allowed to contribute one $100 bill, the belief is that each bill will symbolize a vote by Ameri­cans to demand action against lead contamination.

A collection of these bills are on display as part of the exhibit at NOMA. All visitors will be al­lowed to create their own fundred dollar bill to contribute to the project. In conjunction with the final weekend of the display, NOMA will also host a lead awareness workshop to educate New Orleanians on the subject.

The exhibition features much more than just the display on Operation Paydirt. Chin worked with MIT video game designers and Kurdish rug weavers to create a driving video game called KNOWMAD that allows visitors to drive through a maze based on the designs of Kurdish rugs.

Chin’s multimedia work also includes television. When contemplating how only a relatively small number of people went to art galleries, but millions watched television shows, he decided to collaborate with over 100 other artists to create art that would be placed into the hit TV show Melrose Place. Characters would carry items with art on them, but would not draw attention to them. A video with clips from the show and explanations of the significance of the art in those scenes is on display in the exhibit.

Another room is devoted to Chin’s 2012 surrealist work Funk and Wag from A to Z, an arrangement of collages taken from images in the Funk and Wagnallis encyclopedia.

The exhibition will travel to St. Louis and Houston after it concludes its run at NOMA.

“We are delighted to share Mel’s tremendous artistic output with our audiences and to highlight his strong ties to our community,” said NOMA’s director, Susan M. Taylor.

This article originally published in the March 17, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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