An Interview with Mel Chin, Neo Conceptual Artist

On Tuesday, March 17, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mel Chin, neo conceptual artist. Chin is mostly known for his collaborative work that often involves the help of the community to restore some facet of their environment, breaking down barriers between what we know as art. He incorporates many unorthodox methods, from computer graphics to natural science to weaving and animation into his work.

One of Chin’s most recent works, Revival Field, functions conceptually as a sculpture. A plot of land was used in the Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota, for three years. The soil was contaminated with heavy metals.

Inspired by psilocybin expert Terrence McKenna, who first suggested the idea in a paper, datura plants were grown in the plot. Where most plants would have died from the toxins, the datura plants, called hyper-accumulators, absorbed the metals. The plants were then harvested, burned, and sold for pure ore. In Chin’s talk in the FAPAC, he stated that this project has now been handed over to scientists as he hopes they will perpetuate the work he began. He describes his art as a “constant experimental workshop dedicated to conveying a concept.”

For being so successful, Chin is a rather humble guy. During his talk, he mentioned that he does not subscribe to the delusion of the artist of someone who is above others. I asked him more about his perceived roll in society, and he elaborated that, “sometimes by just being a part of society and moving in society and being part of a conversation within popular culture as well as sophisticated culture you can accrue an understanding that makes that quest for that examination a little more elusive. You’re full of stuff that probably can create the delusions I’m speaking of. Historic process can also give an artist ideas about fame or rugged individualism. So, how do you break through that? And how do you come to it with heartfelt intention like I was, to make it a political critique?

“Yet, even as high-minded or philosophically or politically motivated as I might have been at this one particular instance, there was also this personal or psychological profile that needed to be attended to. I had to reexamine my life. Here I was trying to make this critique about a horrific political situation yet my self was not formed enough to understand my place, my role, as a critiquer. You have to reserve that extraordinary amount to critique one’s self so it’s not just about the quality of the work it’s about the quality, the mutative quality, of the individual.” Later he said that “we look very narrowly into the last twenty or thirty years and we might be looking at a very small concept of the artist and what this role constitutes. It’s mutative, if anything.”

Chin’s work is very planned out, as it must be for it to function, though he does feel that his intended meaning is not always the only meaning to come through. There is no specific spirituality to Chin’s work, “but there is a spirit to it,” he says.

His latest project, Fundred, is a largely collaborative piece designed to eventually raise enough money to neutralize the high levels of lead in the soil. He is traveling around the country educating people about the situation in New Orleans, and then those who choose to participate can fill in with their own drawings a blank one-hundred-dollar-bill that he has printed.

After all 7,000 pounds of these have been filled out all over the country the currency will be delivered via armored truck running on veggie oil to Washington, DC, where the Congress will be asked for the equivocal $300,000,000 in return. The money will be used to fund the project Operation Paydirt, the process of putting phosphates from ground-up fish bones in the soil that will bond with the lead and render it harmless.

“It’s just about dirt and the money,” he says, “there are children who are sick from lead, who can’t be taught, because they are uncomfortable. It’s in their blood. The Cincinnati Report on Lead and Crime was conclusive in it’s capacity for lead to engender aggressive behavior and criminal behavior, so the cultural poverty argument for crime needs to be reevaluated.”

Chin is a humanitarian and an artist interested in catalyzing projects and movements that will help people help themselves and make the world a better place. Chin often deals with the uncomfortable, dark underbelly of society and politics because this is what he seeks to reveal about human nature in much of his work.

I asked him the inevitable philosophical question, “Are you optimistic about the quality of human nature?” He replied that “Am I optimistic? No. I am a pessimist. I told you I liked that Beck album, ‘I’m a Loser,’ and no I’m not an optimist. That’s why I’m compelled to do what I do, because if I do nothing I know that it will be confirmed. If art is a catalytic structure, if there is an option that I don’t know about I’m going to explore it. If there is a meaning to life, I don’t know, but it gives a meaning to life to be actively engaged.”