On Wednesday, American conceptual artist and activist Mel Chin debuted "Unmoored," a six-minute mixed reality (MR) experience that envisions a haunting image of New York City's Times Square: submerged in water. Using Microsoft's HoloLens smartglasses or an augmented reality (AR) smartphone app, viewers can glimpse what the city could look like should global warming go unchecked and sea levels were to rise. “I see Times Square as most Americans might; it represents the endless clock, the public heart of New York City,” Chin said in a press release. “Placing a work in Times Square tests its capacity to engage the imaginations of a population that is more diverse than in any museum or gallery I can think of.”
Chin's portfolio of work is rooted in political, social, and cultural circumstances of the society. "He is known for the broad range of approaches in his art, including works that require multi-disciplinary, collaborative teamwork and works that conjoin cross-cultural aesthetics with complex ideas," according to his studio's website. With "Unmoored"—created with support from Microsoft—Chin hopes to provoke a conversation about the relationship between human actions and global warming.
With the Times Square as its backdrop, "Unmoored" depicts animated boats floating 26 feet above the ground, entering the square from adjacent streets. Over time, the number of boats increase, resulting in a gridlock. In the final scene, the boats begin to rust and sea creatures start to appear, "drawing the user’s attention downward" and "back into the current reality," according to the same release.
The AR's activation area is nearby another installation by Chin called "Wake," which is on view on the southeast corner of New York City's Father Duffy Square. Measuring 24 feet wide by 34 feet tall, and 60 feet long, the sculpture appears to be a hybrid of a shipwreck and a whale skeleton, combined with a carved, wooden figurehead. Measuring 21 feet tall, the animatronic sculpture resembles the late Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, also known as the "Swedish Nightingle," whose bust was once mounted on a 19th-century tea clipper and slave ship, the USS Nightingale. For Chin, "the Nightingale crystallizes the ways in which the expanding economies of the past are prologue to our current societal and environmental dilemmas," according to the release.
“I think the most important motivation as an artist is to use what James Baldwin has described as extracting the question that is buried within the answer,” Chin said on Microsoft's website. “If the answer is 'the world will be inundated and destroyed by our own doings,' then what is the question that we have to ask now? This project is about now.”
Led by Chin's studio, Wake was engineered and fabricated at the University of North Carolina at Asheville's Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math (STEAM) Studio by an interdisciplinary team of community artists, students, and faculty members.
"Unmoored" and "Wake" are part of Chin's "All Over the Place," a multi-location exhibition reflecting on Chin's 40 years of artistic practice, co-produced by New York City nonprofit No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum in a partnership with Times Square Arts. Other exhibition sites include Queens Museum (on view through Aug. 12) and the Broadway-Lafayette subway station (a permanent installation dubbed "Signal.")
Chin's work have previously been exhibited at museums and art galleries worldwide, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; and Thomas Rehbein Galerie in Cologne, Germany.
"Unmoored" and "Wake" will be on view through Sept. 5 in Times Square.