Mel Chin: Revival Field
12 Sep 2011

The Author


Amidst the new cultural trend to go green, many artists are responding to a changing planet with their artwork. They are taking on community-based projects and shedding the artist’s image as a solitary individual. For the past few decades, art has been a series of symbols and representations of ideas, issues, or objects. Today, however, some artists are skipping the representational approach and cultivating things in real space and time. Instead of using materials to represent or discuss issues, art is taking on certain issues directly.  Art is usually the ice breaking mechanism to flood information into the public arena, bringing it up for discussion and consideration. It is up to the artist to look at things in a new way and pose a different perspective that has not been suggested before. Artists are the innovators and solvers of various issues that those thinking inside the box perhaps cannot conceive. One such issue—also arguably the most controversial and widely debated topic today—is the environment and its rapid deterioration. Politicians, scientists, doctors and analysts alike are targeting ecological problems. Artists are plunging into such disturbances as a premise for new work and direction. Eco-art—as it has been coined—is a first hand response to the artist’s encounters with endangered and suffering  landscapes. Mel chin, an artist from Houston Texas, has taken on the role of “remediationist” in his project Revival Field. Remdiationists focus not on natural disasters provoked by mother nature herself, but on human disasters such as oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, sewage runoff, or depleted wetlands. They aim to cure polluted areas, eliminate invasive species, and dismantle sites that endanger the environment or public health. Revival Field’s aesthetic form serves the function of saving deteriorated, polluted soil and restoring it to its natural state. He is not picking plants based on size, shape or color, nor is he arranging them in stylized patterns in beautiful vases; he is merely turning dirt back into it’s original state of function. In one part of Revival Field, Chin focused his attention on the Pigs Eyes landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota that was condemned due to hazardous materials permeating the soil. The landfill became a storehouse for about 8.3 million cubic yards of waste dumped between 1956 and 1972; this did not include an additional 236,000 cubic yards of sludge ash that was added on top of simmering garbage in between 1977 and 1985.  This field ranked at the top of the government issued Superfund list, indicating its incredible toxicity. At the time when Chin was considering his proposal to heal the land, it was so infected with incinerated sewage sludge that it was illegal for anyone to even step foot on it. Chin heals this polluted land by, believe it or not, building a garden on it. He works on his project one plot at a time and fences off about a fifty-foot radius to plant the current garden. Heavy metals, which are proliferate in the soil, are fatal to most organisms when concentrated, however Chin has discovered a type of plant that cannot only tolerate such toxic elements, but leaches them out of the soil and stores it in its vascular system. These plants are called “hyperaccumulators” and are unique in the plant world because they can thrive in toxic lands that are not suitable for virtually any other life or edible vegetation. As these plants grow, they leach heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc, and lead from the soil and store it in their roots and leaves. Tests are done periodically to gauge when the plant is at its storage capacity, the toxins are then extracted from the soil, and  Chin moves on to the next fifty-foot plot. The old plants are incinerated, allowing their ashes to separate from the harmful matter they have stored. The heavymetals are then recycled and used in commercial products to be sold on the market. As the garden rotates, the soil is left healthy, and the field is brought closer to his goal of purifying the Pig’s Eye landfill. Many artistic practices involve high volumes of fabricated materials and assemblages that are burdened by the guilt of creating excess waste in the world. Chin states, “Rather than making a metaphorical work to express a problem, a work can employ the same creative urge to tackle a problem head-on. As an art form it extends the notion of art beyond a familiar object-commodity status into the realm of process and public service.” The creative urge can be applied more efficiently into projects that do not only speak about a change but can actually make the change happen. Chin’s unusual solution to the environmental catastrophe was carried out incollaboration with engineers, scientists, government agencies and communities who share the same agenda of lessening the carbon footprint. In Chin’s mind, ethical concerns supersede any originality and personality granted to the artist with completion of a work; this work is bigger than him individually and will surpass his lifetime. Artists have a function in society beyond the aesthetic, they can reform and educate the public. The language of art can be made functional and should be catalytic, not static.  Three other sites have been constructed since the first Revival Field in Minnesota closed in 1993. Revival Field II was planted in Palmerton, Pennsylvania in 1992 and continued through1996. The Netherlands and Stuttgart, Germany also were blessed with different versions of the original Revival Field in the late nineties, and those are still underway.  With the example set by Chin and other Eco-artists to heal the earth with art, perhaps a trend will emerge where-in society’s pleasures can exist alongside the health of our planet. Chin states “Soil is my marble. Plants are my chisel. Revived nature is my product. This is responsibility and poetry…”





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