After Donald Rumsfelds go to war with the Army you have comments, Mel Chin wrote a song from the perspective of a soldier. War never ends in my head/War never ends in my head/You sent me, sir/I wish youd gone instead.
  • JG
  • After Donald Rumsfeld's "go to war with the Army you have" comments, Mel Chin wrote a song from the perspective of a soldier. "War never ends in my head/War never ends in my head/You sent me, sir/I wish you'd gone instead."

Artist Mel Chin's whole lecture was a performance—but not performance-art or anything precious. In his Texas drawl, he called out at one point, "Hey, Asian brotherhood and sisterhood, do you turn red when you drink? Yeah, you know what I'm talking about." You get the sense this is just who Mel Chin is. Old footage of Melrose Place played on the huge screen behind him at Kane Hall at UW, and he talked back to Heather Locklear's character. "Amanda, no!" She was about to break away from her dance partner to respond to an advertising call from Artforum. It was part of a project he participated in where art was virally injected into the TV show for two years.

Chin, born 1951, peppered his speech with slang like snap, mang, and orale. He demonstrated twerking, stopping at the last second to bend over a stool with his hands ready to go. It's like he woke up from a frozen state older, but hasn't noticed yet. He grew up in a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in his native Houston, so he's owned this vast mix of cultural references for a long time. What got me most was his vulnerability. He was part-CEO, part-empath.

At his chalkboard, about to draw a map of one of his big ideas.
  • JG
  • At his chalkboard, about to draw a map of one of his big ideas.

He lovably croaked out the words of the song he wrote after reading about a U.S. soldier who died in his bed after surviving combat in Iraq because of a deadly combination of PTSD drugs. "I'm writing songs now...to try to find other places where empathy can form in myself," he said, "because you do get cynical, you get distant, and you get delusional, just like everybody else. Now let's watch a trailer." The trailer was for his animated movie 9/11-9/11, juxtaposing the New York terrorist attacks with "the 9/11 we did in Chile," he said. On September 11, 1973, the United States backed a military coup in Chile that replaced the government with a dictatorship. Chin's not the only one to notice parallels.

He disclosed that his best and worst works of art were portraits of presidents in hamburger meat he made at his parents' store as a teenager. After one of JFK in post-assassination freaked out a customer, "my parents said no more sculpture out of hamburger."

His family kept a secret for a long time: his grandfather probably died of opium addiction, which led to Chin creating another work, the giant post-colonial crouching spider Cabinet of Craving. He's also especially proud of the ongoing project Fundred, which you can take part in, and which intends to deliver an armored truck full of drawings to convince Congress to fund lead-poisoning eradication. He showed a map of New Orleans which overlaid low-income areas exactly with lead-poisoned areas. Fundred is a callback to his most famous piece, Revival Field, a St. Paul garden of "hyperaccumulator" plants that pull heavy metals out of the ground.

His newest project (in addition to a big survey exhibition at New Orleans Museum of Art) is setting up a currency backed "not by oil or gold but by the sun"—solar power—with the Sahrawi refugees chased in the 1970s into the Western Sahara by Morocco. "It maybe can mean self-determination, too," he said. "And that's just a coupla projects I'm workin' on. Okay?" He snapped his computer shut and looked up. "Awright?" He was onto the next problem.