Mel Chin is a first-generation American artist who began his journey of creation at a young age. Despite his classical training, Chin’s art is both poetic and analytical while exhibiting an element of innovation. Disciplines of alchemy, botany, and ecology intersect throughout his work. He incorporates his work into unexpected environments, such as demolished homes, polluted landfills, and famous television. Chin looks at how art can raise social consciousness and accountability. His projects are unorthodox and politically charged, and they bring into question the artist’s role as the creative force behind the artwork.

Mel Chin at Revival Field, image courtesy of walkerart.org

Chin’s most notable work, Revival Field, promotes works of art that work towards benefitting science and revitalizing the economies of inner-city neighborhoods. To create Revival Field, Chin collaborated with scientists to create sculpted gardens of hyperaccumulators - plants that can remove heavy metals from contaminated areas - in some of the world’s most polluted locations.

Revival Field is a one-of-a-kind initiative. It is a conceptual art piece involving three interlaced components: plants, fencing, and a hazardous waste site. The 60 square foot installation, which began in 1991 and is still ongoing, is located at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. The soil at Pig’s Eye was polluted with cadmium, zinc, and lead, making it ideal for hyperaccumulators. The Environmental Protection Agency classified it as toxic to humans and the environment, and before the project began, the site was heavily contaminated with incinerated sewage and waste, making it illegal for anybody to enter or use the site.

Chin, after encountering this ecological question, fashioned his own structure surrounded by industrial barbed-wire fencing. His area is filled with vegetation and includes a smaller circular fence that houses a few select plants arranged  in quadrants. The path between the plants is shaped like an X, similar to the Red Cross logo, to mimic a crosshair target, signaling out the land area chosen for revival.

The Minnesota field trial was active from 1990 to 1993, and revealed that Alpine pennycress was the best at absorbing heavy metals, but it did not absorb metals quickly enough to accomplish significant cleansing in three years. The structures from the original Revival Field were removed after it concluded in 1993, but Chin has since reinstated the concept in many different locations around the world. Acting with scientists on phytoremediation-based ventures proved a relatively new understanding of art form in the early 1990s and Chin helped spearhead the effort to combine his craft with botany and alchemy.

Revival Field, image courtesy of sightunseen.com

Revival Field started as a conceptual artwork with the aim of shaping a site’s ecosystem. It is a collaboration between art and science that uses advances in each discipline to inform the other. The coexistence between two fields is what distinguishes and authenticates the project’s initiative. Chin executed the first replicated field test in the United States by treating the experiment as a work of art, and many have since coined the term “Ecovention” to describe art that uses an evolutionary framework to preserve the natural world, both physically and through political and cultural advocacy.

Revival Field Pig’s Eye Landfill, image courtesy of art21.org

The installation addresses a wide range of issues. It speaks to a social concern over the imminent destruction caused by climate change, as well as the possibility of a post-human utopia. Mel Chin proposes biotechnology as a gentle solution to the issue. On one hand, the viewer is meant to feel guilty for contributing to environmental damage; on the other hand, it is a consolation that plants, blooming impossibly in the barren landscape, are doing the job of healing for us. Revival Field opens up a world of possibilities for the future. In an evolutionary time scale, it promises a sequence of mini-utopias. It enables one to develop a kinder, healthier relationship with the earth.


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