Her mother taught Literature and Maya Lin often finds inspiration in poetry, the cadences of her childhood echoing throughout an enviable career that has spanned genres and generations. It seems only fitting, then, that a hefty Rizzoli retrospective of Lin’s work, out last October, unfolds less like a picture book and more like a literary text, with sketches, marginal notes, hand-written narratives, and critical essays coiling into a complex narrative.
It is hard to overstate Lin’s cultural significance. Lin reached celebrity status in a field where most toil in near-anonymity. Hers is a household name, thrust into prominence by a commission of a lifetime—the cleaving Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall—when Lin was still a Yale undergraduate. But celebrity isn’t unambiguous: public visibility means that Lin is continually outing herself—as a woman, as a Chinese American, as an outsider. Some of Lin’s work in a thirty-year career vocalizes this otherness directly: her Civil Rights Memorial, the Museum of Chinese in America, and Women’s Table at Yale each grapple with boundaries between the center and the margins, with what it means—and how it feels—to be on the outside. Lin has said that the idea of Women’s Table, upon which numbers of Yale women students are marked, crystallized when in researching historical documents, she came across the phrase “Silent Listeners” used to describe women who were allowed to audit, but not fully participate in, courses.
In her most absorbing current project, which concludes Topologies, Lin is advocating for the ultimate outsider, indeed for the “outside” itself—the species and natural environments driven to extinction by humans.
In what follows, Lin talks with ArtSlant about her lifelong focus on the environment, the necessity and limitations of research, and the creative urge that drives her ever forward.
Maya Lin, Storm King Wavefield, 2009. Photo: Jerry Thompson. Courtesy Storm King Art Center
Philip Barash: What is your favorite place?
Maya Lin: The places that have stood out in my mind are places that are striking for their natural beauty. The southern tip of Sweden—it is called, I recall, Verdens Ende—is stunning. We are fortunate to spend our summers in southwestern Colorado, facing out to wilderness up a dirt road in the Rocky mountains—again an expanse of nature.
Anytime I find myself looking out to sea...
PB: A monograph is a moment of reflection after thirty relentless years of work. Does this moment feel like a summing up? A pause? Or just another in a series of projects?
ML: I think it is a psychological pause; I haven't slowed down. Yet in the making of the book—I took two years with [publisher] Rizzoli—I began to see how my body of work flow and dialogue with itself. The fear has always been that by pursuing both art and architecture and maintaining my great interest in the memory works, that the three parts would not be of one voice—yet I feel very comfortable with how the three have really been integrated from the start.
Maya Lin, A Fold in the Field, 2013. Photo: David Hartley Mitchell. Courtesy of Gibbs Farm
PB: With the benefit of retrospect that a monograph offers, were you able to see something new in your work—a broader arc that was not visible until now, perhaps, or themes that appear only in aggregate?
ML: Yes. I never could figure out where to fit the gardens: not the large earthworks like Storm King or the earth drawings, but public landscape-based spaces. And I realized the same way my art has both inside and out of doors works, my architecture also has an interior and an exterior component. In designing a landscape, again, one is given a problem to solve in the same way that in architecture, I am creating a building around a client's needs. These are functional arts.
Whereas the artworks, whether they be large scale earthworks or site-specific or studio sculptures, I am focused on my own interest and exploration of the topography of a place, on getting to understand subtle changes in experiencing walking on the curve of the land. Or when they are studio sculptures, mappings of existing or imaginary terrain.
Maya Lin, Riggio-Lynch Chapel, 2004. Photo: Tim Hursley
PB: You've spoken of your work as inhabitable, more place than sculpture. What is your relationship to the people who inhabit your work—the citizens of Maya Lin's world?
ML: I think in creating these works I have been most concerned with how one person touches, experiences, and relates to the work. Usually it starts with my need to experience a work of art, yet these works ask the same of every viewer. It is a very empathetic or immediate relationship to the work.
PB: Schematically speaking, your projects embrace culture, symbolism, and ecology. What is the interplay among those driving forces, and with the force of site?
ML: With the memorials specifically, I have been drawn to some of the larger political moments of our time: war, civil rights, women's rights, the culture and history of Native Americans, and now focus on the environment, species loss, and climate change. I tend to delve into research for each of these subjects, sometimes for years, but in the end I put all that research aside, trying not to let the data and history take over, but almost stripping it bare to reveal a few simple truths.
I visit or select a site and then respond purely to the site, but with all this information in the back of my mind. So my reaction to the site is both intuitive and immediate, yet always with an idea of trying to capture or present a deeper understanding of the place without becoming didactic or prescriptive.
All save the first and last (Vietnam Memorial and What is Missing?) were commissioned works: the Vietnam Memorial I designed when I was a student—for a competition. But only after I had designed it, did I decide to enter it into the actual competition. And What is Missing? [an interactive, multi-site memory project about species extinction], a project that I established, since I have, since childhood, been concerned about how we have severely threatened and altered the natural world through our actions.
All my work is actually focused on the environment. In my architecture, I have been committed to sustainable design solutions, buildings that frame and become a part of their environment—urban infill projects that repair and restore degraded urban areas and buildings that connect one back to the outside environment.
I tend to delve into research for each of these subjects. For the Confluence Project, a six-part installation throughout the States of Washington and Oregon, I have studied and worked on for almost 15 years. And What Is Missing? will be a project I will be working on throughout my life. With What Is Missing?, I have two more years of creating background material before I start editing, stripping away and turning it into something else—something, I would hope, simpler. [Its] website is already up and continues to transform and it invites anyone to add and share a memory about the natural world.
Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake, 2015. Photo: Ron Blunt. Courtesy of Renwick Gallery
PB: Your practice is a hybrid, an intersection of art, site, architecture, material, poetry. It isn't easily categorized. How do you grapple with this disciplinary hybridity?
ML: I actually think the way I approach the design of a building or a landscape is so different from how I approach a site as an artist.
But I have to be very careful I don't end up "designing" a sculpture. The memorials are the true hybrid between the two disciplines and require years of research and thinking of what the purpose of the project is. What is Missing?, the fifth and final memorial, with which I end the book, will be an ongoing project. It is unlike the other memorials: not staying at a distance, and having components that are prescriptive in posing sustainable solutions. I am stepping a bit out of my normal approach in the memory works by not just providing factual information, but adding in what each one of us can do to help.
PB: Are you comfortable with ambiguity in general?And where do you find creative certainty amid this ambiguity?
ML: I love ambiguity. I am drawn to that place between. I find this space allows for the most creative realm for me.
Maya Lin, Atlas Landscape: The University Atlas, 1984, 2006. Courtesy of Pace Gallery
PB: What is your utopia?
ML: Utopia has to be something we can potentially create by understanding and rethinking how we are living on the planet. What we have done as a species to drastically alter the entire Earth's ecosystem is indeed a dystopian situation. Yet, part of what I am focusing on with What is Missing? is Greenprint, [a series of publications about sustainable living] which will help envision plausible future scenarios that balance mankind’s needs and footprint with the needs of the planet. Its aim is to rebalance the world we are now faced with, whether the immediate threats caused by climate change, the massive amounts of pollution in our air, water and soil or the sixth extinction of life on this planet that we are directly responsible for.
Art can rethink a situation: set us in a new mindset, reframe and change assumptions. And I am hoping with What is Missing?, I can contribute in some small way to helping rethink our relationship to the natural world.
Greenprint combines two goals into one—save two birds with one tree—and focuses attention on restoring habitats, our forests, wetlands, and grasslands, and on reforming our agricultural, forestry, and ranching practices as a way to both significantly absorb carbon emissions (potentially over 49 percent of emissions comes from land use practices) while creating and protecting habitat to protect species.
Maya Lin, Around the World x3, 2013-14 [right], Pin River - Sandy, 2013 [left]. Photo: Gary Mamay. Courtesy of Parrish Art Museum
PB: Is there a vision of a good life or a better world that your practice is bringing about?
ML: I think I have always felt that if we can accurately look at what we are doing, or what we have done, we will be able to learn from our past in order to shape a different future.
F. Philip Barash writes about design, visual culture, and the urban condition.
ArtSlant would like to thank Maya Lin for her assistance in making this interview possible.