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Conceptual artist Mel Chin revisits his 'Revival Field' in St. Paul

"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."

Twin Cities' 5 must-see art shows this weekend

Above: Edgar Heap of Birds’ “Nuance of Sky #1, Neuf series”


Edgar Heap of Birds

Bockley Gallery  (2123 W 21st Street, Mpls 55405)

Closes Oct 21

When artist Edgar Heap of Birds arrives to a new city for an exhibition, he thinks about how he can honor the place and the indigenous people who live there. In his newest self-titled solo exhibition at Minneapolis’ Bockley Gallery, Heap of Birds showcases art spanning his long career, from text-based conceptual pieces produced in the 1980s and ’90s, to abstract paintings from his colorful 2012 Neuf series. Then there’s the new signage series titled “Native Hosts for Minnesota” (2017). “Native Hosts” incorporates three large-scale signs, each with white background and light blue letters. One spells out: “ATOSENNIM” (that’s Minnesota spelled backward) with smaller text below that reads: “TODAY YOUR HOST IS BDE MAKA SKA,” a reference to the renaming of Lake Calhoun. Read more about Edgar Heap of Birds’ exhibition here:

"Revival Field" by Mel Chin. Photo: Public Art Saint Paul.


Mel Chin: “Revival Field Revisited”

University of St. Thomas (O’Shaughnessy Education Center Auditorium, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul)

Thurs., Oct 19 at 7 p.m.

This week, conceptual artist Mel Chin returned to the site of “Revival Field” at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul for the first time in more than 20 years. Initiated in 1993, Chin’s project investigates environmental pollution and possible ways that plants could be used as “hyperaccumulators,” which means they would absorb heavy metal toxins and then the plants themselves would be harvested and incinerated. A collaboration between the artist, the Walker Art Center, City of St. Paul and state agencies, and research agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney, Chin designed “Revival Field” used art as a way to test if this would actually work. The project itself is a 60x60 foot square with a circle inside of it, divided into 96 plots. Read more about “Revival Field” here, and come to the talk to learn more about it directly from Mel:

Chin’s talk inaugurates Public Art St. Paul’s public lecture series.


Works on Paper or Without by Miriam Karraker

MirrorLab (3400 Cedar Ave S., Mpls 55407)

Fri., Oct 20 from 7-9 p.m.

Miriam Karraker, White Page Gallery’s recent writer-in-residence from June-August 2017, has emerged from her writerly cave to present her new piece, “Works on Paper or Without,” in collaboration with Alyson Coward’s Qxiz Editions. Through text, Karraker questions process, performance and creative labor. This event is one-night and one-night only! More info on this here Facebook event:


“Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum” at Bryant Lake Bowl

Thurs., Oct 19 at 7 p.m.; doors at 6 p.m.

Tickets: $6-$12 sliding scale

A circle of queer people living in a small Southern dystopian town that is hard to pin down feels like the 1980s but suggests something futuristic at the same time.  This is the setting for director Madsen Minax’s Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum, where a gender-ambiguous kid, a queer lunch lady, a mystical mortician, a phone sex operator/astrologer/life coach, and many others cross paths and unite on their travels through dream states and alternate realities. As in his previous film, The Year I Broke My Voice (2012), in which variously gender-ambiguous characters have a shared communal experience — in this film, it was a queer adolescence —Kairos Dirt similarly situates a group of people on a journey that’s simultaneously revelatory and mind-altering. Minax stops into the Twin Cities on Thursday, October 19 at 7 p.m. for a screening at Bryant-Lake Bowl. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets go for $6-$12 (sliding scale). To buy tickets, click here. Read more about “Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum” here:

Laure Prouvost, How to Make Money Religiously, 2014 (New Museum)


Laure Prouvost: They Are Waiting for You

Walker Art Center (725 Vineland Pl, Mpls)

Hours & pricing: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 11-5 p.m. Sun. & Tue.-Wed.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu. $9-$14; free for 17 and younger, and for all Thursday evenings.

Exhibition runs through Feb 11, 2018

At the entrance of the French-born, Antwerp-based artist’s solo exhibition, there’s an outdoor table positioned indoors with two oranges on it. Outside on the patio, there’s an identical table with two similar oranges. The uncanny spell cast by this mirror reflection extends into the rest of the show. Journey through a darkened hallway with such objects as a glass of water and a loaf of bread perched on mini-shelves, all with accompanying, playful stream-of-consciousness signage. Eventually, viewers enter a waiting room, then a gallery where a video screens on repeat, reminding them that they are already six minutes late and time is not real — or at least not in the mind’s eye.

More info here:

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