Artists don’t make news headlines very often. For Mel Chin, it happened in November 1990, with one that read: U.S. Arts Chief Overturns an Approval. In the midst of the controversies that had been roiling the National Endowment for the Arts over the previous year or so—first for its support of exhibitions by the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, then for its grants to several performance artists, including Karen Finley and Holly Hughes—the NEA’s chairman at the time, John Frohnmayer, took the unprecedented step of revoking Chin’s grant, which had already been approved by both a peer panel and the advisory National Council on the Arts.
What was strange was that, unlike the commotion over Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and the rest, there were no hot-button issues of sexuality or religion at stake with Chin’s work. Instead, his grant involved a seemingly arcane topic in plant biology: phytoremediation, or the ability of plants to clean contaminated soil. Chin’s grant, in the category of “Artists’ Projects: New Forms,” was for a work called Revival Field, a sort of earthwork or land-art piece developed in collaboration with an agronomist at the US Department of Agriculture, Rufus L. Chaney. A section of toxic landfill was to be fenced into geometrically defined zones, a circle within a square, and planted with alpine pennycress (Thlaspi caerulescens), a rather unphotogenic plant known as a “hyperaccumulator”—that is, a plant capable of growing in soil that has been contaminated by heavy metals and extracting the toxins from it. In other words, Chin’s proposal was a science experiment in the guise of an artwork, or vice versa.
Not only was Revival Field unlikely to affront anyone’s moral sensibility; it was also unlikely to be seen by pretty much anyone, given that the site was off-limits to the public. Chin and his assistants were required to undergo 40 hours of training in the handling of hazardous waste before setting to work there. In this case, it seems, the worry for Frohnmayer wasn’t that the project might give offense; it was really that old chestnut “But is it art?” translated into contemporary bureaucratese (being of “questionable artistic merit”).
The idea that a work could possess what Chin called an “invisible aesthetic”—though familiar enough to aficionados of 1970s conceptual art—might have seemed like a case of the emperor’s new clothes; and the idea that the removal of toxic material from soil could be compared to carving in traditional sculpture—the removal of stone or wood from a block, although in this case “the material being approached is unseen and the tools will be biochemistry and agriculture”—might have sounded sophistical. It probably was sophistical, come to think of it. All the better. Chin practices what the poet and scholar Lewis Hyde, among others, has preached: that the artist must be a trickster. As such, he appears, Hyde wrote, not only “as a messenger but as a thief, the one who steals from the gods the good things that humans need if they are to survive in this world.”