Invisible Aesthetic: Peter Boswell Revisits Mel Chin’s Revival Field
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Invisible Aesthetic: Revisiting Mel Chin’s Revival Field

Mel Chin's Revival Field, 1991, Pig's Eye Landfill, near St. Paul, Minnesota. All images courtesy Walker Art Center Library and Archives, unless otherwise noted

As Mel Chin returns to the Twin Cities to participate in Public Art Saint Paul’s 30th-anniversary celebration, Peter Boswell reflects on one of Chin’s most important projects, Revival Field, a public-private partnership that united scientists and artists in field testing “green remediation” concepts at Pig’s Eye Landfill. Boswell, a Walker Art Center curator from 1986 to 1996, went on to serve as director of the American Academy in Rome (1996–1999) and as senior curator/assistant director of the Miami Art Museum (1999–2012).

In fall of 1990, the Walker Art Center presented a Viewpoints exhibition of the work of Mel Chin, which included 17 sculptures and drawings dealing with a variety of social, political, and environmental issues around the world, ranging from state censorship in Pakistan to species extinction in North America.1 Five of the works—four drawings and a maquette—dealt with a proposed project that Chin had titled Revival Field. At the time of the exhibition, Chin was awaiting word on possible funding for the project from the National Endowment for the Arts, where a grant application had been submitted by the Citizens Environmental Coalition (CEC), a nonprofit environmental group based in Chin’s hometown of Houston.

Revival Field was the result of Chin’s growing interest in the subject of environmental pollution (another of the works made for the exhibition, a 1990 installation titled Landscape, also dealt with the issue of pollution and included refuse from a local landfill). He began researching the concept of using plants, “hyperaccumulators,” as a low-cost means of remediating polluted soil by soaking up heavy metal toxins like cadmium, zinc, and nickel from the ground through their root systems and then harvesting and incinerating the plants to recover and recycle the metals—a process known as “phytoremediation” or “green remediation.” Chin contacted Dr. Rufus Chaney, a senior research agronomist at the US Department of Agriculture Research Service, who had done pioneering research on the subject. Chaney told Chin that he had conducted lab research with certain plants but noted that the department lacked the funding to conduct field research to expand on the lab work. Working with Chaney, Chin developed the Revival Field idea as a means of using the framework of art to conduct the first field test of the process on a contaminated site. It represented an important step in the development of his art practice, in that it did not simply address social issues metaphorically or symbolically but instead sought to engage with them practically by bringing together people in different professions to collaborate toward a common goal.

Mel Chin, blueprint for Revival Field, 1990. Collection Walker Art Center

Chin designed Revival Field as a 60 x 60-foot square within which a circle would be inscribed, using cyclone fencing to delineate each zone and separate them from the surrounding area. The circle would be divided up into 96 plots containing a selection of hyperaccumulating plants, soil with varying pH levels, and fertilizers, intended to provide information on the efficacy of different combinations. The area between the circle and the square, to be of the same square footage as the circle, would be planted with native “control” plants. Two pathways would bisect the field at right angles to provide access to the site. From above, the site would resemble a crosshair target, signifying that the area had been “targeted” for remediation.2 Chin likened phytoremediationto traditional reductive sculpting, in which a material is carved away to arrive at the finished sculpture; in this case the material would be contaminated soil, plants would be the sculpting tool, and the remediated site, restored to its natural state, would be the finished sculpture. The most important artifact,” Chin said of Revival Field, “is the creation of a scientific technology.”3

Mel Chin at Revival Field, 1991

The project hit a snag, however, when the CEC’s grant application came up for consideration at the NEA, which had been under fire from conservative critics since its 1989 funding of exhibitions which included Andres Serrano’s photograph, Piss Christ, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic X Portfolio. In February of 1990, a peer review panel in the NEA’s Theater Arts program recommended funding for four controversial grants which contained varying degrees of sexual explicitness by four artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller—who would become known as the NEA Four.4 In June, NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, in accordance with a vote by the National Council of the Arts, the advisory group that reviewed peer panel recommendations, decided to deny the four grants (all this was happening during a period when the NEA was seeking reauthorization by Congress). By chance, that summer two of the NEA Four, Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, were up for grants in the NEA’s Inter-Arts program’s Artists’ Projects: New Forms category at the same time Chin’s Revival Field was being considered. The category was explicitly designed “to encourage experimental innovative projects that challenge traditional art forms” and that “may incorporate and/or apply new technologies.”5 Just before Chin’s show at the Walker, the Inter-Arts program’s peer review panel approved a $10,000 grant for Revival Field. At the subsequent National Council meeting a number of the recommended grants were vigorously debated, including Chin’s, which was questioned for the use of the term “invisible aesthetic” to describe the means by which the plants would remediate the soil; one council member complained that the proposal sounded more like “science fiction” than art.6 Ultimately, the Council voted to approve all of the grants—including Chin’s, Finley’s and Hughes’s—though there were some dissenting votes.

Mel Chin (right) and Bill McKibben on stage during the Walker’s Environment in Crisis event, September 23, 1990

In the wake of the meeting, chairman Frohnmayer, who had authority to approve or reject the National Council’s recommendations, decided in November “to do some muscle-flexing to establish my right to veto” by denying one grant. While the controversies regarding NEA grants had all focused on artists dealing with themes of sexual identity, Frohnmayer elected not to stir the pot by rejecting a grant on the grounds of “decency,” but instead chose to deny Chin’s, because of its “questionable artistic merit.” In retrospect, Frohnmayer himself deemed his action “a really dumb idea.”7 It was the first time he had denied a grant against the recommendations of both a peer review panel and the National Council. Within the context of the controversy swirling around the NEA (which was still awaiting a final vote on reauthorization by Congress), the denial attracted national attention, garnering articles in, among others, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Science magazine, and, naturally, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press (at the time, Chin’s Viewpoints show, which included the pieces relating to the Revival Field, was still on view at the Walker). The move was seen by many as being a politically motivated effort to appease conservative critics, which Frohnmayer admits it was. Behind the scenes, the rejection generated a strong backlash. Members of the National Council resented Frohnmayer’s rejection of their recommendation and let him know it. In addition, soon-to-retire Walker director Martin Friedman, despite the fact that he was literally in his final days on the job, orchestrated a campaign among museum professionals to combat Frohnmayer’s action, resulting in a wave of letters of protest. As the Village Voice reported, “the art world rallied to give the chairperson an art history lesson.”8 Taken aback by the furor, Frohnmayer agreed to meet with Chin, CEC president Barbara Link, and Suzanne Delehanty, director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, in a deal brokered by Walter Hopps, director of the Menil Collection. Chin seems to have been particularly engaging and persuasive in his argument: Frohnmayer later called the meeting “quite delightful” and admitted that he “had misunderstood the nature of the project.”9 In order to save face, he asked Chin and the CEC to rewrite the project description, after which he reinstated the grant in February 1991.10

Revival Field results: amounts of zinc and cadmium absorbed by Thlaspi caerulescens

Rufus Chaney credits the articles on the NEA rejection in the national press and in Science with heightening interest in phytoremediation in the scientific community; for his part, however, Chin worried that the controversy would threaten ongoing negotiations for a test site in St. Paul.11 Ever since he had come to Minneapolis to install his show in September, he had been working with the Walker to locate a possible site for Revival Field, eventually homing in on the Pig’s Eye Landfill, located on the Mississippi floodplain just east of downtown St. Paul. The landfill had been an unpermitted dumping ground for domestic and industrial waste—including car batteries and drums of industrial waste—from 1956 to 1972, and the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission had deposited highly toxic incinerated sludge ash there from 1977 to 1985. In 1988 the site caught fire and smoldered for more than two months. The following year, it was added to the state Superfund list of sites that pose a potential or actual threat to health or the environment.12 After extensive discussions with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the St. Paul Department of Public Works, the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, a final agreement was reached to permit Chin to install Revival Field and conduct an annual harvest for a period of three years. The project was funded by the CEC (through its NEA grant) and the Walker Art Center and co-sponsored by the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Revival Field was laid out and planted in June 1991. Chaney and Chin decided to test plants selected specifically for their ability to tolerate or absorb zinc and cadmium, toxins that existed on the site in high levels: dwarf corn, romaine lettuce, alpine pennycress, red fescue, and bladder campion. In late September, samples from each of the 96 sections were harvested, washed at the University of Minnesota greenhouse, and shipped to Rufus Chaney at the USDA Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, where they were incinerated and analyzed. Although the Pig’s Eye site was not open to the public due to health concerns—the artist and his assistants had to undergo 40 hours of training on handling hazardous waste materials as part of the agreement with the MPCA—Chin and Chaney returned to the Twin Cities the following year to give a talk on their goals for the project from the perspective of their respective disciplines; after the talk, the audience was bused to the site, the only time it was available for viewing.13 Harvesting continued in 1992 and 1993, after which Revival Field was removed. Initial results from the harvested samples indicated that alpine pennycress held the greatest promise of the tested plants, particularly if its biomass could be increased through genetic engineering.14 Following the St. Paul Revival Field, Chin planted another version at a national Superfund site in Palmerton, PA (1993–1997); a demonstration version at Floriadepark, Zoetermeer, The Netherlands, on a non-toxic site that could be visited by the public (1992); and in Stuttgart, Germany (2000–2001). The data from the new sites provided additional information to the ongoing research.15

Once asked if the Revival Field could be considered a successful art work if the science involved turned out to be a dead end, Chin replied, “No, but it can be a successful model of cooperation between disciplines and a guide for navigation through legal, political, and social worlds.”16 But in the more than 25 years since the installation of the St. Paul Revival Field, phytoremediation has become an increasingly studied and applied area of scientific investigation, a field in which Chaney has remained an active leader.17

At the same time, the number of artists working in the social sphere and in the area of science and the environment, in particular, has proliferated, as have the number of related books and exhibitions.18 In a recent article titled “Art for the Anthropocene Era,” Eleanor Heartney cited Revival Field as “now a classic model for the partnership of art and environmental science.”19 Chin himself has been described as “an innovator in a movement of artists who have not only achieved a sophisticated level of ideological thinking in their objects, but have moved on to the next level of action and collaboration with nonartists” and Revival Field cited as “his best-known project.”20

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chin undertook a new environmentally-oriented endeavor. After discovering that 30 to 50 percent of the inner city childhood population had been exposed to elevated lead levels even before the storm, Chin promoted the neutralization of lead contamination of the soil in New Orleans. Originally called Operation Paydirt and the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, it started with increasing awareness and implementation of a technology being used by the US military to detoxify lead-contaminated areas on its bases. Thousands of school children nationally have been drawing hundred dollar bills, the goal being to total the equivalent of the estimated $300 million it will take to neutralize the lead contamination in New Orleans. The project has evolved with a current goal to emphasize the value of each drawing. As of 2017, there are almost 500,000 Fundreds, with new outreach planned to increase the collection. The drawings are being held in Washington, DC as the Fundred Reserve and are used as a means to educate policymakers to consider actions to end childhood lead poisoning in the United States.21

A participant in Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project. Photo courtesy the artist

Pig’s Eye Landfill underwent remediation from 2000 to 2005. The process included the removal of solid sources of contaminants (waste drums, tires, etc.), neutralization of some contaminants through the use of lime and Portland cement, a regrading of the site, the addition of a layer of topsoil up to two feet thick, seeding, and the planting of selected species of trees to prevent contaminants from spreading through the groundwater, a form of phytoremediation.22 The landfill is now part of Pig’s Eye Regional Park in St. Paul, a passive park that includes hiking trails and an archery range, and is a popular site for birdwatching.

As Revival Field and Operation Paydirt/The Fundred Dollar Bill Project make clear, Chin has been instrumental in helping to redefine the concept of art and its role in society, expanding its purview beyond the confines of galleries, museums, collectors’ homes, and even customary notions of public space. Of his willingness to buck conventional thinking and conventional form, he told one interviewer, “I’m a conceptual artist—that’s my job description… Diversity is my signature.”23


1 After its presentation at the Walker, the exhibition traveled to The Menil Collection, Houston; The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; and The Queens Museum, New York.

2 Typically, the imagery in Chin’s work operates on multiple levels. The motif of a circle in a square divided into quadrants is a recurrent symbol of cosmic wholeness or centeredness in a number of cultures. The configuration can thus be seen as a metaphor for the aspiration to return the site to its original, natural state. The 96 sections of the circle were to be demarcated through the use of markers, based on the Mayan numerical system, composed of elements made from lead, copper, and zinc, toxins typically found on polluted sites. On the role of metaphor and symbol in Chin’s work, including Revival Field, see “Explicating Exfoliation in the Work of Mel Chin,” in Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (New York: Allworth Press, 1999) pp. 246–259.

3 Carol Strickland, “Getting the Lead Out: Mel Chin,” Art in America, April 1, 2014. Accessed September 18, 2017.

4 The four grants involved performances that covered themes of gender identity and were viewed by conservative critics as being indecent or obscene. The Walker had presented Finley’s We Keep Our Victims Ready in January 1990. Hughes and Miller each performed twice at the Walker: Hughes in 1990 and 1993, Miller in 1990 and 1992.

5 National Endowment for the Arts, “Inter-Arts Artists’ Projects: New Forms Application Guidelines Fiscal Year 1990,” p. 8.

6 From notes by Penny Boyer, president of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, dated August 3, 1990, in the Walker Archives.

7 John Frohnmayer, Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) p. 237.

8 Elizabeth Hess, “Inescapable Histories,” Village Voice, December 31, 1991, p. 93. Materials dealing with the Walker’s activities in coordinating a response to Frohnmayer’s action can be found in the Walker Archives, including copies of letters of protest from Ned Rifkin, chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum (who had curated an earlier show of Chin’s work); Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Walter Hopps, Director of the Menil Collection, Houston; Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Arnold Lehman, President of the Association of Art Museum Directors (a position Friedman had earlier held).

9 Frohnmayer, Leaving Town Alive, p. 238.

10 Perhaps the best account of the reappraisal process can be found in Judy Arginteanu, “Bulletin Board,” Artpaper (February 1991) p. 7.

11 See “A Composite Interview with Mel Chin,” in Inescapable Histories: Mel Chin (Kansas City: Exhibits USA, Mid-America Arts Alliance, 1996) pp. 41–42.

12 Information on the landfill can be found in a Walker press release, “Environmental Artwork Tests New Technology to Cleanse Polluted Soil,” August 9, 1991, in the Walker Archives, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “Update: Pig’s Eye Dump” (pdf), December 1999. Accessed September 4, 2017.

13 Since Revival Field was located on a site that was not accessible to the public, Chin’s primary means of spreading information about the project has been through the exhibition of drawings, plans, and photographs in exhibitions and books. He also created a demonstration version of the project on a non-toxic site for the 1992 Floriade, an international horticultural festival held every ten years in The Netherlands.

14 Rufus Chaney to Mel Chin, June 3, 1993, Walker Archives.

15 On the different iterations of Revival Field, see “Revival Field,” in Miranda Lash, ed., Mel Chin: Rematch (New Orleans Museum of Art and Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2014) pp. 112–123 and “Revival Fields,” Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. Accessed September 6, 2017.

16 “A Composite Interview with Mel Chin,” in Inescapable Histories: Mel Chin, p. 31.

17 There is a large and growing literature on phytoremediation, which is seen as a promising form of low-cost (though long-term) remediation for third world countries, in particular. See for example, Norman Terry and Gary Bañuelos, eds. Phytoremediation of Contaminated Soil and Water (Boca Raton, Fla.: Lewis Publishers, 2000), which includes a section on the Revival Field, “‘Revival Field’—Art Helps Spread the Phytoremediation Meme,” pp. 135–139.

18 Among the earliest exhibitions on the theme of art and the environment was Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions (The Queens Museum of Art, 1992), which included a section on Revival Field.

19 Eleanor Heartney, “Art for the Anthropocene Era,” Art in America (February 2014) p. 79.

20 Elizabeth Hess, “Inescapable Histories,” and Carol Strickland, “Getting the Lead Out: Mel Chin.”

21 Information on the project is available at Since Chin developed the project, the lead neutralization technology in question has been put into use on a test basis by the EPA in contaminated neighborhoods of New Orleans and West Oakland, CA. See Heartney, “Art for the Anthropocene Era,” and Carol Strickland, “Getting the Lead Out: Mel Chin.”

22 An accounting of the remediation can be found in Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, “Construction Completion Report, Response Action Plan, Phase I and II RAP Implementation” (July 2006) available through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

23 Carol Strickland, “Getting the Lead Out: Mel Chin.”

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