With a quiet, composed demeanor, belied by an intense gaze, Mel Chin surveyed the group of artists, administrators, curators, professors, activists, and other curious individuals gathered for the recent Public Art and the City 2014 symposium at University of Louisville. The format was an interview and exchange between the artist and Miranda Lash, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum, who curated a mid-career retrospective of Chin’s work that debuted last year at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
As Chin began in his soft, unassuming voice, he spoke of his departure from sculptural form to explore conceptual art practice. With Lash trying determinedly to position the table microphone to pick up Chin’s voice, an impromptu, comedic routine provided a visual complement to their conversation. The interview started with Chin’s work in the 1970s and 80s. In particular, they focused on the 1984 work Myrrha P.I.A. (Post Industrial Age) in New York’s Bryant Park as a turning point in the evolution of Chin’s work. Chin’s recollection and description of Myrrha P.I.A. moved fluidly between Dante’s Inferno, the inspiration for the figural composition, and the drug dealer kingpin who worked the park and proposed that Chin build him a spaceship.
The exchange between Chin and Lash moved on to a seminal work that began around 1990 and marked the artist’s departure from traditional sculptural form. Revival Field, Pig’s Eye Landfill evolved after a six-month fast from art-making, during which Chin spent his time in the library and on the streets of New York, offering himself as a conduit through which ideas would form and flow. In other published interviews Chin referred to this process as “free-ranging”. With what Chin described as “poetry of concept”, Revival Field became a field test to explore whether plant life could be purposefully utilized to remove heavy metals from soil with hazardous waste landfill below the surface.
There was no scientific proof of Chin’s Revival Field concept at that time. The artist’s hypothesis that hallucinogenic plant material may translate into practical healing magic was taboo and disregarded by authorities, from scientists to environmentalists to land managers. “Green” soil remediation was not then a priority for scientific research funding. Recognizing that collaboration was key to the realization of the project, Chin sought a partner. After phone calls and inquiries to a long list of scientists with no interest in the project, Chin found Dr. Rufus Chaney of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together, they further developed the concept and identified the most promising test plants.
When no financial support from the scientific community could be found, Chin sought funding for the project from the National Endowment for the Arts. Public funding for a public problem. Although approved by NEA panels, then Chairman John Frohnmeyer vetoed the grant and rescinded funding for Revival Field. Chin’s artistic practice, employing as a medium living flora-based antidotes for poisoned earth, earned the first veto in the history of the NEA. The Chairman objected to federal funding for a project based on environmental activism, using botanical mechanisms to siphon buried toxins. Chairman Frohnmeyer claimed this voodoo was science, not art, and advised Chin to seek funding from their distant cousins in the federal funding family tree, the Environmental Protection Agency.
With a steadfast resolve, Chin sought support from art museum directors and others to intervene on his behalf. After a delicate lobbying campaign, Chin met with the Chairman to make his case. During the private negotiations Chin prophesied what public art could be, when boundaries and genres dissolve and artists willfully surrender authorship of their work. Chin approached the controversy with Chairman Frohnmeyer as an opportunity for dialog rather than making demands, setting in motion a significant shift in conceptual and multi-disciplinary art applications. Chin was so determined that public funds be applied to the project that he refused private donors offering support while the NEA grant was in question.
It worked – the case for funding, as well as the experiment at Revival Field. Scientific testing proved Chin’s concept, with documented presence of heavy metals, particularly cadmium, present in samples of Thlaspi, the test plant showing the most capacity for hyperaccumulation. Various iterations of the experiment followed on multiple continents, allowing Chin’s concept – not necessarily a contrived work of art – to live on and produce a viable solution for green soil remediation.
Chin and Lash discussed and shared insights into several additional projects, including Ghost, based on urban renewal in Hartford, CT; Recolecciones in the San Jose Public Library; and perhaps his most well-known project, Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bills, which raises awareness of childhood lead-poisoning.
Through his work, Chin forges a path from victim to solution. His focus on the eventual outcome of his practice, the “so what?” of his work, is his belief that what comes after is far more important than his artistic process and exhibited objects. He says often as he discusses his work “it’s not about Mel Chin”, then with his curiously unique dialect, “you knowwa’m sayin’?” The sustainability within each conceptual project, addressing environmental and social inequities is the point – it is the reason why.
Lash shared with the symposium audience Chin’s definition of art, which she learned from him while researching and planning the retrospective exhibition. In Chin’s words, art is: “a catalytic force which allows options to become visible.” For generations scholars have tried with desperation, and still do, to define art. What is it? What isn’t it? Chin’s definition is enlightening, provoking, and most of all, simple enough to be convincing.
Artmaking for the greater good – making options visible – is not a new concept, but models continue to be applied in new ways, with new perspectives, in new places, with new communities, and with new positive outcomes.
Meeting Mel Chin and hearing him discuss his work was an experience I won’t soon forget. His art raises awareness of environmental and social issues worldwide. Chin challenged us that day, asking whether the same issues exist in Louisville.
“Well, dang…and you know about it, right?”
Image credit: Tom LeGoff, UofL MFA, www.tomlegoff.com