Monday, February 18, 2013

Revival Field: Themes of Change, Mutability and Transformation

Heather Phillips
History of Contemporary Art 
Dr. Alford

January 2013

This one 1800-word blog post is a combination of the two 900-word blog post requirements. All images are credited to Mel Chin’s website:

Artists have used land as a medium in a variety of different ways since the Earthworks movement in the 1970s. While early Earthworks artists focused on formal issues while creating minimalistic geometric forms, contemporary artists often use land as metaphors and comment on current pressing environmental and societal issues. Current day land artists use earth in a larger variety of ways, even tackling discussions of politics and social issues. For more than a decade, Mel Chin has embodied this new generation of land artists while embracing several ways to use land to offer inquiries into modern-day living. Through his array of interests, Chin’s work blends the lines of science, social activism and art in his use of land.  Chin’s multi layered work crosses through many mediums including: toxic earth, soil analysis research, video games, works re-purposing abandoned homes, and many others. These aspects of his art have caused confusion by writers and critics. Though many struggle to classify his work, it is often lumped together in the board category of activist art. This categorization, though it provides a convenient lens through which to view his work, does his work an injustice. Ultimately, Chin’s work is a cross-media poetic expression of change for himself, and others, as well as the transformation towards that change.  This central theme in his work can be seen in one of Chin’s most famous works: Revival Field.
Revival Field
Many who review the artwork of Mel Chin are quick to point out the issue of classification. Though Chin is classically trained, his art is analytical and poetic and evades easy classification.[1] Mel Chin’s work is hard to classify because of the variety of topics he explores which span across many mediums. Chin bridges fields of inquiry in the creation of his pieces.  However, this aspect of his work has gained flak from many critics and other outside sources who often describe his work as being “whatever concept fires his imagination — in whatever medium seems appropriate.”[2] Chin’s work often has a political edge as well as a research component. These qualities led to initial disappointment in the creation process of Revival Field. This work by Chin featured an experimental polluted field using plants whose offspring might hold the cure for decontamination. Though seen as a science project by some, Chin’s assertion of Revival Field as an art piece was a strategic act in order to gain funding. [3] When official government agencies were reluctant to fund the implementation of an alternative approach, Chin transferred the experiment from the domain of art, because art is exempt from regulations, certificates, and authorizations.[4] Current government methods of disposing polluted land were already expensive; agencies saw funding Chin’s work as only adding to the cost. Still, Chin’s choice was also made to assert the many possible mediums for art work as a generator of change, a central aspect of Chin’s work.
Despite Chin’s assertion, however, he still encountered opposition for another reason.  Upon a request for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the grant was denied after council members had criticized the project for being too political in nature.[5] The grant was ultimately denied, however, because of its connection to environmental research: “Endowment Chairman John E. Frohnmayer rejected a proposal to fund Revival Field because he insisted it pertained to the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, not the NEA.”[6] Though funding for Revival Field was eventually secured, the initial funding issue displays both the confusion and objections concerning the levels of meaning in Chin’s artwork.
In explaining the multiplicity of topics and mediums in his work, Chin states: “My work takes difficult political and ecological dilemmas and expresses such topics in symbolic forms. I am interested in the mechanics of ideas... I explore Ideas and how we live, what kind of society we have. I look for a game plan, a possibility.”[7] Chin’s quest in exploring possibilities produce works which are similar in that they pertain to today’s society, and possess no limitations. By not having limitations, Chin’s work crosses many disciplines. The root of the work lies in an idea new to the artist and society in general, resulting in a work which provides possibilities unseen before. Chin’s art does possess many ideas, mediums, and statements. Even so, a common thread throughout his work is the metaphor of change and transformation. 
Working on Revival Field
Revival Field is a work by Mel Chin which accurately displays the artist’s use of change and transformation.  The art project is a circular field of polluted land which features crops that are planted, maintained, and harvested when they reach maturity. The key to eliminating the toxicity lies in re-planting. The dense roots of the hyperaccumulators absorb the contaminating metals from the soil and the harvested plants are incinerated at low temperatures. The planting process is repeated until the site's toxicity level is safe and acceptable. [8] The change in Revival Field happens literally as soil purification occurs through the growing and replanting process. Chin started the project with a hunch about toxin-absorbing plants and contacted scientists throughout the world. Eventually he learned of a research paper that led him to his collaborator. Working with U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist Rufus Chaney, the artist proposed an art project introducing a variety of species called hyperaccumulators that Chaney had been studying [9]. In Revival Field “[t]he success of his work is measured in terms of real, not metaphoric, change.”[10] One display of change in this work occurs through the well documented results. These results, if they portray success in the purification process, could also lead to a change in how we handle hazardous waste sites.

The hard facts showing change is but one way this work expresses transformation. A change in your way of thinking occurs. Chin has listed this change as an important condition. Chin believes that the survival of his own ideas may not be as important as a condition he might create for others’ ideas to be realized.[11] In today’s world, land (unpolluted land especially) is becoming more and more scarce. Revival Field also presents a change in a person’s way of thinking Chin pursues in the viewer as well as in himself: 
If you approach everything with a critical eye or mind, then the world will reveal itself as something that's quite impossible to change. The human ecological track record is so horrific that I don't have much hope for it, really But the moment that you're captured by some other possibility, the moment when you discover art that's new to you , other philosophies, other music —those moments are very rare, but they transform you. Art can change who you are. I don't think about changing the world; I think about changing myself.[12]
Revival Field displays how change plays a central role in the artwork of Mel Chin. Chin goes about trying to change his outlook on societal topics, eventually seeking to share these possibilities with others. This process can be seen in how Chin went about planning Revival Field. After studying the nature of pollution, Chin was able to find another who shared in his theory for purification of earth. The outcome was a new way to view the rate of land consumption through the possibility of purifying land previously unworkable. This new way of thinking is first new to the artist; this new found method then becomes a possibility when shared as an artwork to the public.
Art:21 Segment on Mel Chin
            Another way to view the art projects of Mel Chin is through not just change, but mutability. Chin’s works embody the notion of mutability through the transformation process that so often occurs in his works. The changes he instigates apply to three categories-nature, the human mind, and art-and can affect reform throughout culture.  Revival Field is a prototype for converting many forms of careless behavior into responsible action. In this way Revival Field mutates as it transmutes despair over terrestrial despoilment into rays of hope. [13] Change occurs in Revival Field literally as the land becomes cleansed. A transformation also occurs through a change in the way one views land consumption. However, another level of transformation is present in the polluted land itself. The toxic environments Chin works with are products of irresponsible misuse of hazardous materials. From this portrait of carelessness Chin crafts a project employing responsible action, research and purification. An irresponsible action mutates into a responsible one considerate of humanity, in an effort to make a change for the greater good. 
Mel Chin ultimately uses the aspect of change in order to present a catalyst of sorts: “My goal for art is to create a condition where one can see the possibility of change. Art is not static, it is catalytic. Art is not just a language, its useful, it makes things function. It has a critical relationship in society, not members of an elite. We have our function in society.”[14] In light of this goal, an example of a successful work of art in Chin’s eyes is seen in Revival Field. Chin’s goal of finding change in the way he thinks, resulting in a new possibility for society to benefit from, is achieved in Revival Field.  This possibility transforms the mindset of society as well.  Revival Field is a catalyst for change both through the way one thinks and the functionality of earth itself. If the project is successful, it will change how we treat toxic land, making it functional once more.  Therefore, Revival Field is not just an example of Chin’s thematic use of change, transformation, and mutability. Its catalytic nature makes it, in the eyes of the artist, a successful work of art society can draw from.
 Revival Field serves to portray many aspects of Mel Chin’s work. The controversy involving the funding of the work displays the confusion surrounding the multi-disciplinary and multi-media approach Chin uses in his works. This work shows the theme of change, transformation, and mutability resulting in the catalytic quality Chin strives for. These themes are present in many layers of the work. The first layer of change is seen through the literal change from toxic to purified, dangerous and untouchable to useful once again. From this transformation, a second change has the possibility of occurring: a change in how the government treats hazardous waste. A second layer is present that demonstrates Chin’s proposed method in all of his works. Chin arrives to a new way of thinking which he shares with society. This new way of thinking and treating hazardous waste gives Revival Field the catalytic quality the artist strives for. Lastly, a third layer is present in what the land stood for in its beginnings. By using the toxic earth as a catalyst for societal change, Chin displays a mutation from land showing the irresponsibility of humans to land showing transformation for the greater good.

[1] Art21, Inc., "Mel Chin." Last modified 2012. Accessed February 15, 2013.

[2] Cudlin, Jeffry. 2010. "Working By Any Means Necessary: A Conversation with Mel Chin." Sculpture (Washington, D.C.) 29, no. 2: 32-39. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 17, 2013).

[3] "SEGMENT: Mel Chin in "Consumption"." Consumption. Art21, Inc.. 2001. Web,

[4] Weintraub, Linda. 1996. 47.  Art on The Edge And Over. Art Insight, Inc.

[5] Masters, Kim. 1990. “Arts Chief Ignores Advice, Vetoes Grant; Environmental Project
Criticized as Political.” The Washington Post. LexisNexis (accessed Feburary 15, 2013).

[6] Weintraub, 49.

[7] Weintraub, 48.

[8] Phillips, Patricia C. 1997. "Subverting landscape: the work of Mel Chin." Public Art Review 8, 4-8. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed February 18, 2013).

[9] Phillips.

[10] Weintraub, 47.

[11] Art21, Inc.

[12] Cudlin.

[13] Weintraub, 50.

[14] Weintraub, 51.


  1. I never really paid too much attention to earth art but, I found your post about Mel Chin's Revival Field very informational. I never knew there were so much about earth art to explore. I found that the Revival Field was a very interesting project and the process that Mel Chin had to go through to do this piece. I'm glad that Mel Chin was able to do this piece of earth art and share it with the world. This post had really open my eyes to explore more about earth art. I truly enjoyed it, hope to find out more about it.

  2. This is one of my favorite pieces of ecological art! I think it is so great that the piece is an ongoing project--it is continuing to reverse some of the damage we have caused. Mel Chin has also created a number of other really thought provoking ecological pieces. Another piece related to soil contamination (specifically lead) is Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a collaborative effort which began in 2007 to raise awareness about the unsafe levels of lead in the soil of children play areas in cities. Additionally, there is an intervention portion of the project where they went to 6 different areas in New Orleans and applied calcium phosphate to the soil to neutralize the lead and covered the contaminated soil with clean soil.

    1. I read about that project too Savonna! I think one of my favorite aspects of Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project is what happens to the Fundreds. One of the goals of the project was to make a one-to-one exchange with legislators, securing 300 million actual U.S. dollars to clean the contaminated soil. The idea of an art project directly interceding with legislators and government funding really speaks to the multi-faceted nature of art today.

  3. This is a beautiful project, and I like the way you've explored the various ways in which this work is or causes transformation. Transformations of earth, art, community, chemistry,'s great to see a work of art that is able to make a pragmatic difference in the world, as well as activating a community. Fascinating work.

  4. Prior to reading your post, I was not familiar with Chin's art. I was surprised to hear that Chin has been criticized for lacking a style. I would think that at its roots, all art is based on a concept that intrigues the artist, and arguably, the best artists use “appropriate mediums.” It sounds like Chin has a broader skill set rather than an artistic deficit.

    The focus of your post, Revial Field, reminds me of Janine Benyus’s Biomimicry ( techniques for problem solving. Benyus has found a way to blend nature and industry just as science is beginning to blend with art. I think she would be amused by the game of “not-it” between the EPA and NEA.

  5. Hybrid work like this is exactly what we need going on right now in the art world. It crosses boundaries and blurs the lines of distinction, bringing closer together fields of study that are generally looked at as being very separate from each other. In return for their cooperation, we get this incredible work of art. It is almost becoming a staple nowadays that if you aren't really sure what it is, then it's good art. Lol. This is mostly because art critics get bored easily, and apparently get tired of looking at works of art that are not pushing the boundaries of their stated media. When a work of art becomes vague in reference to its media, it challenges the critics to come up with a way to define it. Not just critics of course. A lot of people outside of the art community would look at this and not even recognize it as art - which is fine. Even if we look at this piece as not being art for whatever reason (even though it is), it still has a great deal of utility for what it is. It supports itself without the need of the title "artwork," and that's really impressive for a work of art nowadays. I'd be tempted to say it is becoming a prerequisite.

    -Brian Bullard