"Revival Field" during its initial planting, in the early 1990s. Image courtesy of Public Art St. Paul.
It’s been more than 20 years since conceptual artist Mel Chin created his groundbreaking “Revival Field” project in St. Paul, and he never intended to return.
But as part of Public Art St. Paul’s 30th anniversary celebration, Chin returned to the Twin Cities to discuss “Revival Field,” a site-specific project originally designed in 1991 as a 60-by-60-foot square within which a circle was inscribed, and then 96 pots of "hyperaccumulator" plants were put in.
The goal was to test green remediation concepts at Pig’s Eye Landfill, with hopes that the plants would be an efficient, low-cost means of absorbing heavy metal toxins from the soil, such as cadmium, zinc and nickel. The task seemed huge, but Chin wanted to take it on through his artwork. Originally, there was a fence that made the area very visible, but the fence was soon removed, making this part of an "invisible aesthetic."
“It was a way of thinking about how the relationship between art and science cannot just be about application of a principle in an unusual way,” said Chin by phone. “Either way, from art to science or science to art, it can build bridges to achieve a mutual dream of something not formed before.”
“Revival Field” was started not as a way to apply science and knowledge to art, he said, but rather to create a science. At the time, neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were allowing such research to take place, he said he was told by Dr. Rufus Chaney, a senior research agronomist at the USDA, who had done some work on the topic but didn't have enough funding to continue.
Chin developed the idea of “Revival Field” with Chaney, and then took the project to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which at the time was under fire from conservatives for granting money to artwork deemed “sexually explicit.” Even though Chin’s work had nothing to do with those projects, he experienced the backlash of it. Despite much controversy, an approval, a denial, and then a reinstatement of the grant, Chin was able to secure $10,000 in funding for the project.
Mel Chin revisiting St. Paul and the site of "Revival Field" in 2017.
After planting the field in 1993, he returned for three years, coming to plant and harvest. Then, the harvested plant material was sent to Cheney’s lab at the USDA, and analyzed. In the third year, they obtained positive confirmation that high levels of heavy metals were being absorbed by six varieties of the hyperaccumulator plants. The experiment worked.
“The level of hyperaccumulators is way beyond any other species. It needed to be proved and that’s what it did,” he said. "This in turn liberated a whole slew of scientists working on this issue.”
There are other incarnations of the project in Palmerton, Pa., and Germany. Chin said it brought about a shift in the relationship between art and science.
“It was a conceptual art project executed to confirm scientific process,” he said. “In the art context, it opened up the idea of conceptual art, moving beyond the formality of dealing with landscape in the traditional sense and move into an ecological transformation closer to Beuysian conditions.”
Chin is a conceptual artist, but also works in social practice and with environments. He is not making art about science — he is making art that drives science.
“In distinguishing his own practice from those that are interested in the landscape for aesthetic or sculptural reasons, Chin is aligning himself with the precedent of an artist like Joseph Beuys,” commented Andrea Gyorody, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at Oberlin College's Allen Art Museum, who just finished her dissertation on Beuys and social sculpture. "Beuys' largest and final project,'7000 Oaks' in Kassel, Germany, which was completed in 1987 and still exists, was aimed at environmental revitalization. That project was driven by actual scientific concerns about decline of the forest."