Mel Chin

During 1991–1992, Mel Chin worked with FWM to complete his ambitious installation Degrees of Paradise, which was first exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. As is typical for Chin, the artist worked with a diverse range of collaborators to realize this project, including scientists, computer programmers, and traditional hand-weavers in Turkey. The title references Dante’s Commedia and the “complex vertical geography of the ascent from earth to heaven . . . [which was] earlier prominent in the Arabic and Persian traditions . . .” (Thomas McEvilley, Soil and Sky, The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, 1993). 

For the installation, two triangular-shaped rooms were constructed opposite one another. A small drawing on slate of an unfolding lotus serves as the fulcrum between the rooms, in which two divergent yet complementary sculptural installations are suspended from the ceiling. On one side, Chin hung fourteen video monitors that display multi-dimensional fractal images chronicling the world’s weather mapped for one full day as recorded by scientists at McGill University. The images appear in a triangular format on the monitors, a looped display of clouds moving across a blue sky. On the ceiling of the other room hangs a hand-knotted Kurdish wool carpet made by women in Damlacik, Turkey, during the beginning of the Gulf War—the influence of which can be detected in a helicopter form hidden in the design. The carpet depicts the women’s interpretation of the scientific satellite mappings, samples of which were given to them in still format. 

The elements of Degrees of Paradise represented Mel Chin’s first explorations into the subject of ozone depletion and provided the basis for a larger installation called The State of Heaven. Degrees of Paradise was included in an exhibition of Chin’s work, co-sponsored by FWM and Swarthmore College in 1992. 

Artist Bio

American, born 1951, lives in New York and Burnsville, NC. 

Mel Chin was raised in Houston, Texas, the first generation of his family born in the United States. Of Chinese descent, he grew up in a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood and worked in his family’s grocery store. He began making art at an early age and earned his BA from Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1975. Chin is best known for undertaking collaborative and cross-disciplinary artistic investigations into politically and ecologically charged topics. For example, in 1991 Chin worked with a group of scientists to create gardens of plants that draw heavy metals from contaminated areas to make Revival Field. His numerous one-person exhibitions and innovative projects have been sponsored by List Center for Visual Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA (2000); the Metro Transit Authority, New York (1995–1997); the Headlands Center for the Arts, Marin County, CA (1994–1999); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1990); and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (1989). Chin has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships from the Joan Mitchell Foundation (1997, 2008), the United States Artist Fellowship (2010), and the Guggenheim Fellowship (2015) among others.