In 1990 artist Mel Chin collaborated with Rufus L. Chaney, a senior research scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, on a project to detoxify a 60-square-foot section of the Pig's Eye landfill, a site in St. Paul, Minnesota, heavily contaminated with zinc, lead, and cadmium.
Using hyperaccumulators, or plants that naturally can extract and store heavy metals, the team was able to gather scientific data on the viability of using these types of plants to clean up polluted soil. Previously, little data outside of lab experiments existed. So for Chaney, Revival Field enabled him to test his research on an actual contaminated landscape for the first time.
Besides advancing science, Chin saw the project in terms of art-making:
If Michelangelo takes a block of marble and starts to make a David, he carves it and carves it. The art is this idea transformed into reality. But what happens if your material isn't marble, but a toxic, dead medium—earth that can't sustain life? Scientific process, not artistic process, has to be the tool. To take that soil and make it live again, to sculpt a diverse ecosystem from it—that to me is beautiful.
Unlike Michelangelo's, however, the process is largely invisible. As a way to spatialize the process, then, “the contaminated earth was fenced in with chain link and subdivided by intersecting paths that form an X.”
It's X marks the spot, a gun's crosshair, the earth turned into a target.
Poisoned landscapes about to be bombarded with botany.
“The project's boundaries are circumscribed by a square. Chin conceives of these overlays as a target, a metaphorical reference to the works pin-point cleanup. The divisions are also functional, separating different varieties of plants from each other for study. In the circular field the intersecting paths create four fields where six types of plants and two pH and two fertilizer tests can occur in each quadrant. The land area between the square and circle functions as a control plot where plants will be seeded with local grasses. The design for revival field facilitates the chemical analysis of each section.”
The initial field experiment finished in 1993. “It showed that Alpine pennycress was best at taking in heavy metals, although neither it nor any of the other plants took in metals fast enough to achieve significant cleansing in 3 years.” But as it is a replicable test, other Revival Fields have been staged elsewhere to determine better and faster accumulators. So stay tuned.
Revival Field @ The Creative Capital Channel
Mel Chin @ Walker Art Center
Mel Chin by PBS Art:21
Rufus L. Chaney
The Technolicious Arboretum