Mel Chin's "invisible aesthetic"

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.
In 1990, as part of a residency at the Walker Art Center, sculptor Mel Chin began a work every bit as monumental as Michelangelo's but far less visible: with USDA scientist Rufus L. Chaney, he planted hyperaccumulators, plants that can extract and store heavy metals from soil, at the Pig's Eye Landfill in St. Paul, a plot so polluted by incinerator ash that it's on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Permanent List of Priorities. The work, a fenced-in area reminiscent of a crop circle, was called Revival Field and consisted of a target-shaped square of land circumscribed with a circle with an X in the middle, a reference to the project's pinpoint cleanup. As Pruned quotes:

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.

When the project concluded in 1993, research showed that Alpine pennycress was the best at leeching heavy metals, although no plants were effective enough at cleaning up the land. But it did seem to provide an expansive definition of art. Chin said, "For a time, an intended invisible aesthetic will exist that can be measured scientifically by the quality of a revitalized earth. Eventually that aesthetic will be revealed in the return of growth to the soil.

For more on Land Art, visit the Center for Land Use Interpretation's catalogue of projects.

One man's art: The fungal counterpart to Chin's art might be mycoremediation, the use of mushrooms to clean up everything from oil spills to pesticides to chemical weapons and deal with problems from termite infestation to roads destroyed by logging operations.

(Thanks, Alex and Pruned. Cross-posted at Off Center.)

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