Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Public Art: Solving Public Problems

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1990. Image via Roselandish
This week, as promised, I am returning to our summer public art mini-series. After writing about the synthesis of art and science in my last two posts, I immediately thought of Mel Chin--a scientific artist, if there ever was one. Chin's revolutionary work Revival Field is a beautiful and functional combination of art and science. The work, which used hyperaccumulator plants to remove toxic chemicals from soil, is very much in line with all the talk of "going green" and sustainability that is part of the zeitgeist today. But back in 1990 Revival Field was quite controversial. Famously, Chin went to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding, and it was initially rejected for its "lack of aesthetic value." (Chin petitioned, and ended up winning the grant). Revival Field was not accessible to the public either, since it was located at Pig's Eye Landfill--a contaminated superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota. So if it isn't accessible to the public, and is not about it really public art? Read on to find out why the answer is yes.

A Toxic Problem with a Beautiful Solution
     Chin's intention for Revival Field was to find a solution to the problem of toxic soil--especially in areas where people live. His solution: hyperaccumulator plants, which can suck heavy metals out of soil. He saw hyperaccumulators as a potential long-term solution to this problem of toxicity that was not only practical, but conceptually beautiful. "We live in a world of pollution with heavy metals saturating the soil, where there is no solution to that," Chin told Art21. "If that (pollution) could be carved away, and life could return to that soil, then a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture."
    To complete Revival Field, Chin worked with the country's foremost expert in hyperaccumulators, Dr. Rufus Chaney at the United States Department of Agriculture. While Chin had already studied the history of alchemical plants in African lore and other sources, Chaney helped him study up on the hard science behind these metal-sucking plants. (Sounds like something out of science-fiction, doesn't it?) Chaney was also excited to find a new outlet for hyperaccumulators, since he could not find government funding to conduct his own experiments in the field.
"Arts can be important for public service"
    The next step: completing a test to prove the hyperaccumulators could really do their job...and finding the funds and the place to do it. This proved to be an enormous challenge. Chin felt strongly that Revival Field should be publicly funded. "'s a public problem, and it should be public funds. We should show that arts can be important for public service. An idea like Revival Field is for the public domain," Chin told Tom Finkelpearl in an excellent interview from the book Dialogues in Public Art. But funding a hyperaccumulator project was tantamount to accepting responsibility for a toxic site, so the Environmental Protection Agency (and other public entities) stayed far away from the project.
     Chin spent hundreds of hours on the phone talking to government officials trying to find funding and a test site--an arduous process which Chin considers part of the art itself. "When people are used to see you making sculpture or creating drawings and they come in and you’re on the phone constantly, and they say, "Well aren’t you going to make any art today?" And I would say, "I am making art—this is it," Chin told Art21. Eventually Chin obtained public funding from the NEA as well as a site: Pig's Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of it's Superfund status, the Landfill was off limits to the public; instead, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held an exhibition on Revival Field. Chin planted the hyperaccumulators plants in a bullseye pattern in a cordoned off section of the landfill. Chaney would then test soil and earthworms from the site back at the USDA for lowering contamination rates.

Chin on site at Revival Field. Image via pruned
But Is it Art? 
    As I mentioned before, it's hard to believe sometimes that Revival Field might qualify as public art--since it's inaccessible to the public and highly conceptual in nature. But Chin created Revival Field for the people, to help solve a problem on a micro level that affects thousands, probably millions, on the macro level. And Chin and Chaney were hugely successful in achieving that goal. Not only did they find reduced cadmium levels in the soil after only a year at Revival Field, but the success of the project at Pig's Eye also led to three subsequent Revival Fields in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Germany. Most significantly, the hyperaccumulator process is actually used by the government today. It's now called green remediation, and the EPA--who originally wanted nothing to do with Chin and Chaney's project--has their own website devoted to the practice.
     Rufus Chaney told Tom Finkelpearl (in another Dialogues in Public Art interview),
"Mel and I agree that Revival Field is not done until it has become a technology. Mel would say it's finished when the first full site has been decontaminated...It will be done when it's part of the normal way society solves problems. Wouldn't that be a remarkable, effective art project?"
Revival Field may not be 100% complete, but it's on its way there, and is certainly a success as an artwork, a science project--and a work of public art.

You can read more about Mel Chin at Art21 (including the more recent, very cool Fundred Dollar Bill project), and in the aforementioned book Dialogues in Public Art (which I can't recommend enough if you are interested in public art).

What do you think about Revival Field? Could you envision a similar project in your community?


  1. An incredible work and a very well written description of it and what makes it so interesting and important.


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