Walking through the winding path of “Connecting the World: The Panama Canal at 100,” visitors encounter a stalwart and meditative space encased in black walls shaped like canal locks. The only contemporary art piece in the exhibition – “SEA to SEE” – is a bright spot for avid art lovers in this season of non-contemporary exhibitions.
The museum’s commission by Burnsville artist Mel Chin, whose work thoughtfully informs without criticizing, makes a delightful fit for our community. He knows us well from his recent residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, which ended with the exhibition “Mel Chin: Recap” in summer 2013.
Before Chin arrived in Charlotte for his residency, Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern, and contemporary art at the Mint, began assembling a show on the Panama Canal. Stuhlman had rediscovered the Mint’s piece “In the Lock” (1913) by Alson Skinner Clark and was moved by its beautiful portrayal of a dirty, dangerous and industrial moment. With the centennial of the canal imminent, he began planning a show of owned and borrowed artworks and ephemera exploring both the creation of the canal and its changing perception through history.
To offer additional perspectives, Stuhlman decided to commission an essay and an artwork. He chose Anthony Doerr to write a fictional piece for the catalog (his “All the Light We Cannot See” was shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction). For an artwork, Stuhlman considered contemporary artists whose work engaged social, environmental and historical issues and landed on Mel Chin. In an interview Stuhlman said Chin is “the perfect person whose work has, for decades, been deeply engaged with all these issues and who responds to them in such innovative and eloquent ways.”
Chin brought forth an ambitious proposal titled “SEA to SEE”: giant glass hemispheres with projected video of transcribed scientific data in “two unique cinematic portraits” of the Atlantic and Pacific. The commission, which the museum has the option to buy after the exhibition, saw Chin uniting different worlds of people, from oceanographers to carpenters to digital filmmakers.
The two blue glowing forms tilt 10 degrees inward, enhancing the claustrophobia visitors already feel in the dark space. The playful artist squeezes visitors through the “pinch point” of the two oceans, momentarily transforming them into that formerly irksome isthmus whose time ran short.
In his inclusive way, Chin put out a call to oceanographers asking for data on changes they’ve marked in the seas. He worked with a digital artist to transcribe the data into visual form, and layered each set to create the films projected in 180 degrees on the glass hemispheres. In a catalog interview, Chin said, “the project took on a unique purpose, which is to stimulate a deep interest in connecting with the future of the oceans.”
Indeed, the visual data is not encouraging: full-size silhouettes of endangered species glide through the panels while growing red flares represent temperature changes. Less threatening data is also represented, like the hues of blues indicating changing sea floor depths.
Significant funding came from the Knight Foundation, a portion of which enabled the museum to digitally document and share the project’s design, fabrication and installation. On the exhibition’s Web page, the museum provides videos of the construction, interviews with Chin and Stuhlman, and two inquisitive schoolchildren with GoPros. A Live Stream video feed, which ended Nov. 28, allowed “more than 800+ virtual visitors into the galleries for the first time in the museums history.” Transparency at this level through social media and Internet tools is not yet common in Charlotte museums, but it should become the norm.
Consider yourself encouraged to visit this exhibition and engage with the additional information available online. Chin’s work can never be appreciated, thought of or understood enough, which is likely his intention.