Week 3: Art and Ecology: A Rejuvenation


1.the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms

The definition above (obtained from dictionary.com) suggests that ecology is a much broader concept than what I thought it was. Ecology is not just the study of plants and the environment. It is about the interaction or the relationships between organisms and their surroundings, whether that involves interactions between two humans, between humans and plants, between bacteria and their environment, etc. The broadness of the term ecology further suggests that ecology can be an interdisciplinary field.

This week, in fact, we saw the intersections of ecology and art in various forms. An example of such interdisciplinary work is in Mel Chin’s work utilizing the Thlaspi plant.

Mel Chin “Revival Field” 1991-present. Thlaspi Plant Close-Up

This is a Thlaspi plant. I think it is a standard looking plant, and it reminds me of the plants that you see growing on the side of the road or through the cracks of a cemented sidewalk. Nothing about its physical appearance really stands out or really screams “art.”

When the Thlaspi plant is seen in this context, however,

Mel Chin “Revival Field” 1991-present

it garners more of my interest and attention. This is a picture of Mel Chin’s artwork Revival Field. It is a project in which Chin utilizes the Thlaspi plant as well as other types of plants to accumulate metals in toxic soil, thus “reviving” a polluted and contaminated plot of land. The plants, as they grow, essentially take up the heavy metals contaminating the soil.

The first question regarding the piece that arose within my mind was: ” Isn’t this project more of a science (ecology) project than an art piece?” After giving it some thought and reading more about the project, my opinion is that it is a good mixture of both.

Chin dramatizes the plot of land through his implementation of a geometric design. He uses the steel fencing to isolate the plot of land and to shape the configuration of the planting site. The big X in the middle serves as a walkway for the scientists and artists surveying the plants but it also serves as a visual for the art piece. However, his project is inherently based in ecology. It involves the interaction and the organic processes between plants and their uptake of the nutrients and in this case, pollutants, within the soil. It also addresses the interactions between humans and their environment. In my opinion, this project attempts to reconcile the broken relations between humans and their environment (pollution) by letting nature do it’s thing and letting capable plants rejuvenate the soil. And I think that concept is simply beautiful and worthy of attention and praise.

In an interview with ART21 magazine, Mel Chin explained his thought process behind the idea:

I say that it’s the traditional sculpture that I’m interested in. Michelangelo has his Carrara marble; he has an idea, an image. And he goes with his chisels and he creates David, and we all “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” over it, and whatever we do in front of it. That’s it. Now, I’m in a world where I open up the paper; I read these articles. We live in a world of pollution with heavy metals saturating the soil, where there is no solution to that. If that [pollution] could be carved away, and life could return to that soil and then a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture. I think there is a profound aesthetic in there, and it’s really simple.

Mel Chin sculpted a new ecological system from one that was tainted by the pollution caused by humans. He essentially revived a dying plot of land using knowledge from the field of ecology. He also brought attention to both the issue of pollution and the existence of a plausible solution through this piece. If ecologists and artists collaborated more often and on a larger platform, would that lead to more awareness about the state of our environment? Would it inspire more people to do something about the pollution in our world?

Who knew that the fields of art and ecology could intersect in such a productive and beneficial way?

-Connie Paik


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