Maya Lin talks art and activism

Kim Bolduc I Concordiensis

Maya Lin is a renowned artist and designer who is most popularly known for her work on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lucky for our campus community, she was able to come to Union as part of the second annual Feigenbaum Forum on Innovation and Creativity to enlighten us on her art, architecture and passion for the environment.

Lin did not always know that she wanted to be an artist per se but the subject always held a spot in her life. While at Yale, Lin thought about being a field zoologist and quickly decided it was not for her. Instead, she turned to what she knew. Lin loved science and math and had always made art. Therefore, it was an easy decision to combine the two and split her love for art and architecture.

The art that Lin makes is completely inspired by nature. During her presentation the audience was shown a picture of a repetitive wave, which was the inspiration for a series of Lin’s creations. The idea was to make a series of land art pieces of repetitive wave motions each varying in size. Lin told the audience that she tends to work in a series. In each series she works with indoor and outdoor spaces and plays with materials, space, size and scale. She is very committed to the environment and uses sustainable mediums in these works. Lin likes to work in these small series to tell a story.

She explains that “the dialogues between my indoor and outdoor works are often dialogues” meaning that each piece in a series directly leads to another. The idea of taking something simple and exploring its possibilities through art is a technique Lin uses often. This idea can be seen in a series of land art pieces based on lines. Lin discussed in her talk how she thought about how much character a line has. Curious as to what would happen if you walked three meters above the ground and how that would change your perspective of your surroundings, Lin experimented with height. This thought paved the way for a squiggly line earth-work made for people to walk on. Lin decided that the next place to go was complicating such a simple concept and seeing what would happen. Lin told the audience that she always wondered, “how much personality is in a line drawing” which laid the groundwork for ambiguity. Lin wanted to discover what would happen if a line was ambiguous, if it doesn’t know if it’s a line or a language or anything else.

Just like her series of works, each thought Lin had went further and guided her to another concept. From the ambiguity of lines, while still lingering on the thought of perspective, Lin went back and forth between indoor and outdoor works. She questioned what would happen if you mixed the indoor and outdoor spaces with their perspective works. What would happen if you brought a hill inside? What if you could walk up this indoor hill and touch the ceiling? These thoughts led to a series of works that moved to different locations and weren’t permanent. With each hill, Lin wanted to change the viewer’s relationship with architecture so she made each work unique. In one you walk under it, one you walk over it and in the last one you walk through it.

To conclude her art, Lin discussed sculptures and again reiterated how she enjoys pushing the boundaries and asking the questions nobody else thinks of. In this case she wanted to know how does a sculptor draw? Lin her self shared that she likes to draw in 3-D. Particularly because of the ambiguity that comes with drawing between 2-D and 3-D. These drawings and models of sculptures before they are built allow you to explore connections between science and art, art and architecture and positive and negative space.

The sculptures by Lin focus on rivers, water and waves. The largest piece inspired by this is located outdoors and is permanent for good reason; Lin wants to know if her art can ground you where you are. The objective is to get the viewer to see the river as a unified fluid whole instead of being just one river of many. Looking at how the river interacts with the environment it’s in is key, especially by paying close attention to the void between spaces in each sculpture that Lin creates.

Moving past her artwork and into her architecture, Lin struggled to incorporate her love for science into works where only time and history appeared to seamlessly fit. When science is used in accordance with nature Lin feels as though people systemize it, they understand nature because they analyze it as a scientist does to anything. Incorporating this combination of subjects was a struggle to Lin. Instead she decided to approach her architecture by combining things that juxtapose each other. When tasked with creating the Smith College Library Lin wanted to play off old and new. With such a large task, she only takes on one architecture project at a time because no matter what, some art will always be simultaneously in the works.

Probably her most well known piece of architecture is the Vietnam Memorial, which Lin designed when she was just 21 years old. The design was entered into a contest and was chosen as the winner when she was merely a senior architecture student at Yale. Yet Lin had a distinct vision, she wanted to make something private yet personal for those affected by the war. Lin describes her style for monuments quite shockingly, “I make anti-monuments,” she admits. The idea for the Vietnam Memorial is that it reads like a book, and reading something outdoors allows you to have that private yet individual experience. By making the font of the names on the wall in half-inch letters and not billboard sized, she is essentially putting a book outdoors. It is quiet and personal with that one-on-one connection by going directly up to the wall to see each name but you can read it publicly and touch it which makes the experience unique. The monument is brilliant, with so much thought wrapped up into such a simplistic design.

The last work of architecture Lin shared with the audience is most definitely the most powerful. The multi-site piece “What is Missing?” focuses on the planet, all of its changes, and the human impact something near and dear to Lin as an environmentalist.

Lin shared how important this topic is to her and that she will always be working on this. The goal of “What is Missing?” is to explore the idea of sharing the planet. Lin wants all of us to witness and understand the habitat loss taking place in the world and how humans have such a large role in this. The project is most certainly a collaboration of art and science. Lin decided to dedicate a whole series to this because she believes humans need to understand their actions and the consequences they have for this world and what they can do to fix it because without knowing there can’t be any change. Lin wants to know, “what can an artist do to contribute to the conversation. I’m not trying to compete with the experts. I wanted to introduce the environment and these topics into my installations to reconsider nature.” This passion and creativity is what makes Maya Lin the unique and successful artist and designer that she is today. Lin wants to help the conversation about the environment by introducing it to the world in another way. By expressing the concerns of our world through art, Lin is able to get the audience involved.

If the audience is able to physically see the conversation the world is constantly having about the environment they are able to rethink their choices and ask questions, joining in on the discussion. That is the exact purpose of the installations that make up the “What is Missing?” series: getting the audience to reconsider nature.


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