Why Mel Chin is giving away the land art design of his subversively charming Current: LA native garden

The city of Los Angeles' first public art biennial Current: LA Water, organized by the Department of Cultural Affairs, kicked off this past weekend with the unveiling of sculptures, art talks, DJ sets and a tea ceremony that used water from the L.A. River. (Hope no one drank it because, um, that broken sewage pipe.)

Art installation sites are scattered all over the city, from San Pedro to downtown to Canoga Park, so it’s impossible to visit the sites in a day or even a week. So I started with one: Mel Chin’s “The TIE that BINDS: the MIRROR of the FUTURE” at the Bowtie Parcel, a spit of land along the L.A. River in Glassell Park.

Here, Chin has planted a native plants garden, whose design he has made public, to encourage others around L.A. to plant this work of land art on their properties, too.

At the Bowtie Parcel, which is overgrown with weeds as well as invasive species, Chin’s garden blends right into the landscape. In fact, you’ll have to keep your eyes carefully peeled to find it, since it’s still in its infancy and obscured by other scrub. (I was aided by my trusty research assistant, Bonnie the American Staffordshire Terrier.)

 Coming upon Mel Chin's "The TIE that binds," a native plants garden that slips into the landscape around it. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Coming upon Mel Chin's "The TIE that binds," a native plants garden that slips into the landscape around it. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

This means that the garden is no breathtaking work of land art. (More visually compelling is Michael Parker’s 2014 obelisk carving nearby, “The Unfinished.”) But as a work of wry activism, it is quite charming — even subversive.

Chin has explored the idea of the garden as art before. In the 1990s, as part of a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he conceived of a garden that could leech lead contaminants out of the soil. (He has long been active on the issue of lead contamination.) 

The more intriguing aspect of Chin’s piece at the Bowtie Parcel is that he is encouraging others to plant the same garden, in the same configuration, in their own backyard spaces (so-called mirror sites). Already, a number of area homeowners have done so — and the L.A. County Museum of Art will install a mirror site on its grounds this week.

 Mel Chin has offered his design to the public, so that others around Los Angeles can plant the same garden in their yards. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Mel Chin has offered his design to the public, so that others around Los Angeles can plant the same garden in their yards. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

 A view of one of Chin's mirror sites planted in a private garden in Brentwood. (Amanda Wiles / Current: LA Water)

A view of one of Chin's mirror sites planted in a private garden in Brentwood. (Amanda Wiles / Current: LA Water)

The biennial has as its theme the question of water. And Chin’s gesture nods to the ongoing drought and the drier landscapes all Angelenos will probably eventually be forced to embrace out of necessity (hence the word “future” in the title of the piece).

As far as art goes, Chin’s individual garden may seem small, even inconsequential. But if he manages to persuade a bunch of grass-addicted Angelenos to rip out their lawns in a collective gesture of high art, then its effect will be multiplied. It may also be long-lasting — more so, perhaps, than anything he could have carved in the cement.

 Research assistant Bonnie evaluates the aesthetics of Chin's land art installation. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Research assistant Bonnie evaluates the aesthetics of Chin's land art installation. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

 While Bonnie was intrigued by the piece, she much preferred the sculptural and aromatic qualities of this nearby pile of mulch. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

While Bonnie was intrigued by the piece, she much preferred the sculptural and aromatic qualities of this nearby pile of mulch. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)