Studio Visit: SMS | Mel Chin

This conversation was originally conducted over text message in March 2020. 

RBA: So how have you been holding up? You’re in North Carolina?

Mel: I’ve been holding up well here in the holler as they call it, Egypt NC

Your studio is in an old women’s hospital?  

Well it was a local craft redistribution center originally designed by architects from 5th Ave., New York in a Tudor fashion…It was built in the 1930s by local farmers with stones from the mountains brought in with mules and horses. Visited by the urbanist Jane Jacobs, Eleanor Roosevelt…later on it became a birthing hospital. Now it looks like a wannabe witness protection program

Omg wild, do you have any photos?

Sure… here it is in the rain. The door was put in for a film I just finished. Ms Candice Strongwater of Red Bull Arts was visiting and was the set painter. It has art historical context as you might ascertain… no worries, the blue tarp is covering a mower, not anything morbid.

Do you think it’s haunted?

Oh no, it was a place of birth. I’m only haunted by deadlines.

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I’m curious about this film you’ve been working on? About the true artist behind ‘Fountain’. 

Mel: Oh yes! Baroness Elsa von Freytag -Loringhoven! The film is titled She’s Not There. It’s just a 15 minute short, I came upon an article about her… maybe a review of her collection of poetry, Body Sweats (MIT Press) I became obsessed with her story and art, and became convinced that the urinal Fountain was her work, not Duchamp. I am relieved to say as a conceptual artist, I arrive not just because of DaDa daddy but also a mommy. Finding a way to make a proper homage through a contemporary art world fiction…by this film. It will be submitted to festivals but who knows if it will make it in.

What was your favorite part of making the film?

Loved making a facsimile of “god” and remaking readymades as props. I should add that I have this antique snow shovel, found at a thrift shop, that Is a dead ringer for Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm… that was ready for its closeup. Of course, nothing better than the editing process as any filmmaker can testify.

Do you have any photos of this facsimile shovel?

Well the shovel is the real thang! I’ll go take a picture for you.

Do you think our conception of the ready-made would be different had she been properly credited? 

No…can’t say, but how women have been denied their place in the formation of our conception of art and the market could have been corrected a long time ago. And yes, she was a lot deeper into plumbing than Marcel’s (she called him “Dushit”) fascination. Of course, I would say Duchamp was fundamental in conceptual art history, but her spirit and his appropriation of the urinal after her death (she died broke ass and asphyxiated by “illuminating gas”) say he was assisted and propelled into further stardom by her plumbing based readymade. The film doesn’t go into all that… but there is a dose of art market, sexism and surrealism and… sorry, must not spoil it for you!

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What was the first art piece you saw that changed the way you think about art?

The way I think about art is always changing so it will probably be the next work I see or experience that I won’t have words or thoughts for or anything to compare it to.

It might not have been a work but an idea of art that was relief from the confusion and insecurity of my youth.  I had a breakdown that left me catatonic. All the shock therapy and psychiatrists recommended that I be institutionalized. Luckily, my parents kept me at home instead and I woke up a year later…the one thing I lost was the capacity to draw. Looking at my own sketchbooks done earlier …I realized the key to me might be art. 

It’s interesting because I feel like a lot of your work seems to act through a kind of relief act, social or otherwise, like with Revival Field for example

Maybe, but I feel the poetics of an idea, action or object is key to deciding if it’s worth doing.

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Let’s talk about revisiting the Gala Committee with your show at Red Bull. So In the Name of a Place was modeled after the idea of a virus? 

Our show…

Yes. It was. The host being a soap opera and the concepts needed it to become realized. But not to kill the host but to allow it to say more than it was capable of. Not the life-ending relationship with infection but the augmenting, evolutionary possibility of passing ideas on… A generational transfer of ideas via “reruns”

Right more strategically parasitical than terminal

What would the host be if something like Melrose Place were repeated today?

It might not be a media platform but perhaps a community, even one not necessarily human, to undo, to transform, what we have done.

It’s ironic, soap operas are called ‘soap’, which kills viruses. (soap emoji)

We were a virus trying to be a bubble! 

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Do you have a favourite TV show or soap? 

I don’t have a favorite, I do act on recommendations. To get a spectrum and grip on culture…or how to escape from it. Got friends in high, low and in-between places. I’ve been looking at films from the sixties to figure out how I got messed up!

Which films?

Classics: 2001,Strange Love, Blow Up, Rosemary’s baby, Breathless, touch of zen…more But maybe for the things they got right too.

One more very important film to list although it is from 1975, Chantal Akerman’s ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’

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When do you think an artwork is finished?

A finished work is a rare bird, almost never happens. Usually, time just runs out, or a beautiful unexpected epiphany appears that demands you walk away. Maybe if you actually get “done” then you’re really done. Just when it seems no more possibilities exist, the next opportunity effortlessly occurs. It’s best when others reveal a poetry in the work that you thought no one would notice, then it’s worth it. Others can finish it for you.

Feels like a lot of artists have had projects put on hold or found new ways to work within this moment, is this happening to you? 

Everything must adjust and move forward …The projects in Houston, Chicago and Little Haiti are in formation and the thing about public engagement works is they are “We” projects… always shifting in collective ways. Right now it’s about how they must adjust to keep peeps safe, amplify empathy and give up timelines. On the personal side, introspective investigations are now the nocturnal clock. A group I’m part of are making face shields… a project alongside the art stuff that continues.

Right, I was going to ask you about that, you make them with a 3d printer?

Yes, I have a small one and it churns out a few at a time…but we will be pooling them together for the local healthcare workers. 

Gotta do a few good things as The world is being transformed. I need to be open to be compelled into responses that give options not considered… I expect many changes.

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Keep up with Mel Chin via his website – https://www.melchin.org/ – and Instagram – @mel.chin