Mel Chin: From Determination to Despair to Hope

The following words appear in the title of a delicate and mysterious drawing by Mel Chin:

An endosymbiont is any organism that lives within the body or cells of another organism. This hypothesis was put forward by Lynn Margulis in 1970. It declares that communal and parasitic relationships among bacterial cells are responsible for the evolution of complex life on Earth, not competition. 

A polyp is an abnormal growth of tissue projecting from a mucous membrane.

Mel Chin, Endosymbiont Flight, Polyp Death, 2015. Graphite, colored pencil on paper. 10 1/2 × 8 inches. Courtesy the artist.


The drawing accompanies a bleak elegiac tome written by Mel Chin that is titled, Before the Storm Clouds of the 21st Century.

In the essay, the language of rapture and the sublime is reconceived to describe the planet's dismal prospects as if they have already been fulfilled. Chin composes excrutiating descriptions of the sordid conditions that have emerged:

“Urban basements became ballasted breeding pools, foul cellars fostering new pestilence. Über-drug-resistant infections, and blooms of opportunistic viral agents went riding on explosive puffs of mold spores. Once airborne, that dust fell upon acre after acre of sprawling, suburban conformity. Saturated streets became canals filled with bodies, bloated fatty rafts gently rolling in unison upon fetid waters.”

How does the drawing relate to the text? Both provide compelling descriptions of the wondrous potential of life as it first evolved on planet Earth (endosymbionts) and its ultimate corruption and disease (polyps).

Until the final paragraph, it seems Chin has succombed to despair, “All the politics and economics really didn’t matter; the damage was done.” But then, in the final paragraph, he offers hope by appealing to the artists to lead the way through this human-induced morass. Chin presents a fervent expression of the power of art, of the human imagination, of resilience:

He reports that some “fearsome survivors” were hounded by internal voices, “whispers howling for meaning and direction. They began their hunt for the former artists, ingenious in their aesthetics of adaptation and abstracted camouflages, to yank them from dark hidey-holes. It was hoped that those with the shattered, frenzied imaginations could predict the next steps.”