When I was initially asked to contribute to this publication I gravitated towards the topic of uncertainty as I had written my master's thesis around a similar theme. After meeting with Eugenijus Kaminskis, the editor, it became clear that I should meet with Mel Chan as there were similar threads between our work. Coincidentally, Mel and I had planned to meet up later that week for a different project before this was known. Although we had already met some time ago through mutual friends, I hadn't seen her for several years. Now, while this is not an unique experience to me nor to other people for that matter, – the strange effect of meeting someone you haven't met in a long while after thinking about them recently, or the result of something physically manifesting itself and actualizing after thinking about it. There are many of ways to interpret and analyze what this situation might or might not mean. Regardless, it seemed to make sense to write a piece about meaning and randomness that was conceived based on this very cusp.
I arrive at Dudok Cafe and Mel Chan is already sitting on the table. We greet each other and she begins to ask me about my thesis. Mel is curious as I tell her that I was 'assigned' to write about her based on our shared interests. I tell her that my thesis was a research on the production and legitimization of knowledge through observing speculations such as predictions in discourse that is implicated by politics and history. The practice of prediction and earlier forms of divination are ways in which people deal with uncertainty and unforeseen future events. They have been used as a means of spiritual and temporal guidance and knowledge making. Today, however, credible predictions have shed its spiritual and religious nature becoming a more rational science functioning primarily on the basis of eliminating risk and, time management as well as planning. In other words, containing, controlling and rationalizing chaos. Over the course of time from the C18th, rationality and irrationality were artificially separated. Rationality became the favored mode of inquiry in knowledge production and thus was to dominate and lead the new scientific revolution, subsequently banishing esoteric forms of understanding underground, regarding other modes of inquiry as superstitious, ignorant and irrational. At the heart of this research, however, lies the personal experience from seeing how my mother became increasingly enthralled in Chinese numerology, an ancient practice of fortune telling. It was by no coincidence that she turned to it after she divorced my father and the collapsing of events that followed. I believe that it was a place that offered a way to make sense of her life; a feeling of control, a tangible understanding of cause and effect and mostly of hope.
As I tell my story, Mel is reminded of her earlier work called Metaphors (of love, for example), On meaning of object and coincidence. The work is a photographic series accompanied by written contemplations on meaning, randomness and coincidence. The text begins to break down the possible past lives of ordinary objects, such as soap on a pumice stone, through its raw material and ponders about ideas of time, form and external forces which make up for its existence and chance encounters with Mel in her bathtub. She thinks about this meeting and its meaning and quickly realizes that meaning is something she imposes on them. This leads her to think about two subjects:
The first is about fortune telling, an act in which meaning is imposed onto objects. "A sign is a sign if you impose meaning on it, and believe it really tells something. One of the most systematic ways of such a practice is I Ching – just think about how a whole (moral) philosophy is derived from 9 random lines!”. Similarly in my work, I reflect on predictions as containers that carry dreams and paranoias just as fears and desires. They operate as a kind of unconscious/conscious projection of our meaning making brains. Fortune telling is based on containing the slipperiness of meaning and giving it form and vision. The externalization of our fears and desires have the possibility to act as a mirror, a kind of reflective device allowing us to re-orientate ourselves, but simultaneously having the potential to actualize oneself. An example is the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecies. Meaning is created and motivated from within us and outside us, everywhere and nowhere. It is difficult to pin-point and yet it is omnipresent.
Secondly, she sees the power and danger and at times the fickle nature of meaning, relating it to the practice of religion and "ridiculous art interpretation". Mel also confesses that in the beginning she looked at art through intellectual analysis and interpretation because of her background in philosophy, however after practicing art herself, she realized that sometimes it's the other way around. One thing that comes to my mind is Susan Sontag essay Against Interpretation where she emphatically describes interpretation as "the revenge of the intellect upon the world." On thinking more about the subject of art interpretation, I babble on about how the art critic/reviewer/curator creates the art, by writing, talking and imposing their meaning onto the artwork. They are in fact the real 'creators' of art in the sense that they publicize an authoritative and imposed interpretation upon the artwork, perhaps even radically different one than the intention of the artist. Interpretation is not a bad thing per se, as artwork continues to live beyond the artist and the art institution in the minds and hearts of an audience, however what's problematic is the illusion of true meaning and content defined by so called 'experts'.
New types of religious (un)consciousness, as she calls it, is the main theme of her work, and in a certain way parallels how religion has always (un)consciously found a way back to her life. Much of her past work, such as the Darling, let me clean your underwear and Annunciation responds to new ways of conceiving the religious experience as something that is deeply embedded and perhaps even unavoidably perennial. In reference to Slavoj Zizek's book On Belief, Mel suggests that no matter how secular we seem to be in our contemporary culture, some beliefs still take over and often operate on an unconscious level. It is as if we both have in our own way, circled around a desire so fundamental that constantly negotiates our sense of identity and responsibility in the uncertain present as well as the inconceivable future. Contemplating the return of, or rather the implicitly present, the 2012 end-of-the-world scenario is an interesting point of departure.
As Mel describes, "'It’s only the end of the world/ Not a death in the family/ We’ve seen all the best sights / Been on all the best rides / at the amusement park on Saturday.' So sing Black Box Recorder", an indie rock band from England, which Mel has liked since the 90's. She continues, "The end-of-the-world scenario may seem, at first sight dramatic, destructive, powerful or even masculine (look at all those explosion scenes from Hollywood films!), however people from our generation have gone through a few end-of-the-world predictions: the 1999's King of Terror; 2000's Millennium Bug; 2012’s Mayan prophecy, to name just a few. Yet we’re not afraid. We, the cool kids, are very sober. We joke about it, laugh at it, and long for it in secret. We long for it because it’s ultimately romantic."
Amy Suo Wu
An article written on Rotterdam based artist, Mel Chan for Roodkapje's publication number 1: Post-Slack. This is the first of a series of exhibitions revolving around the "we are the World" theme. For this, and the next five succeeding exhibitions, Roodkapje publishes a publication regarding the subject of the exhibition, to expand and elaborate on the matter.
The following text is based my first conversation with Mel Chan that journeys into connecting themes present in both their daily thoughts, work and life. Driven by a general yet encompassing search for meaning, each of them brought their own thoughts on randomness, coincidence, interpretation and religion to the table.