In 1981, Maya Lin, then a fresh-faced Yale graduate, entered a maelstrom of political infighting as she won a competition to build a memorial to commemorate the lives lost during America’s most divisive war. Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial quickly became a glaringly public and often ugly debate that drew ire and vitriol from all sides as Lin’s understated design, choice of material, age, race, educational background and more all came under fire.
A hallmark of her work is its experiential quality. The design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is critical to opening the possibility of an intimate, personal response to the work of art. By adhering to specific design elements—black polished reflective granite, small type face, submerged level—the viewer, whether veteran or not, is compelled to come face to face with the 57,000 names of casualties of war. Writing about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearly twenty years after its building, Lin stated: ‘I remember one of the veterans asking me before the wall was built what I thought people’s reaction to it would be…I was too afraid to tell him what I was thinking, that I knew a returning veteran would cry.’
Since Lin shot to national attention with her work on the Vietnam Memorial, she has continued to create works that are experiential and subtle, working closely with the site context of the work. Following the Vietnam Memorial, Lin was commissioned to build the Civil Rights Memorial (1989) in Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate those who died in the struggle for civil equality in America between 1954 and 1968. Built as a fountain, the work is inspired by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words from his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech declaring that ‘we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
Since then, Lin has worked to blur the lines between art, architecture and the natural works, creating encompassing works that straddle these boundaries. Storm King Wavefield, the third of a three-part Wavefield series, is a blend of landscape architecture, topology and installation art. It is impossible to approach Lin’s 13-acre large installation of towering ‘waves’ without interacting with the piece in a bodily way; whether walking across its peaks or wending through the troughs, or nestling against a wave with a book, the viewer cannot but develop a unique, personal relation to the art work.
Her latest project, What is Missing, goes full circle, returning to the art form of the memorial. What is Missing has been described as a ‘multi-sited artwork dedicated to bringing awareness to the current crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss’ (Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle, 24/04/2009). This project continues Maya Lin’s interest in melding the human-made built environment.
Even since the furore surrounding the Vietnam Memorial died down, Lin has not escaped the critics’ pen. Once lambasted for being seen as political, her latest works have drawn a rather different sort of criticism for being apolitical and stepping outside of the political debate. All expression is political, these critics suggest, and it is an outrage for an icon like Maya Lin to abdicate her role as political icon.
Yet in its form and concept, however, Maya Lin’s works reveal a striking continuity from her earliest work on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to her current work, including large-scale earth works and gallery installations. It isn’t politics that defines her works, but rather their intimate sensitivity to the both viewer and context.
By Stephanie Chang