By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Intro: Maya Lin successfully crosses over from being an architect to an artist and environmentalist, and through all her work, she makes you aware of your surroundings and gain a different perspective.
Simplicity is the crowning reward of art. Maya Lin, an artist, architect, and environmentalist, finds her way to simplicity through mounds of research to create works that are quiet, transport you through time, and provoke thought.
Lin has created evocative memorials, such as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Women’s Table at Yale, the Confluence Project in the Pacific Northwest, and ‘What Is Missing?’ However, she is no memorial woman. She has created buildings, such as the Novartis Building in Cambridge and the Nielsen Library at Smith College, among others.
She creates landscapes of scale evoking the movement of water through pieces, such as the Wave Field at the University of Michigan, or giant doodles in soil such as the Eleven Minute Line in Sweden. Then there’s her art — rivers made up of recycled silver or the Chesapeake Bay made of thousands of marbles that take over a room, the underwater topography of the San Francisco Bay is cast in stainless steel and suspended in air at the California Academy of Sciences. Lin recently spoke at the University of Washington (UW).
Lin seems to carry the influence of her parents, especially her ceramicist father Henry Huan Lin, with her. A crater-faced pot he created is her first slide at the UW. “My parents were equally influential. We were a small family — my parents, my older brother, and me. We grew up on a college campus, so it was idyllic. My dad let my brother and I play in his ceramic studio until he was done with work. He went on from being a ceramicist to being a Director of Fine Arts and then Dean of Fine Arts. So, it was a wonderful exposure to arts to crafts. Professors were out with yarns and weaving looms, I had an ability and exposure to bronze casting. I remember meeting George Segal in high school. I was always making art and my parents encouraged us to follow our passions. Hence, my brother is a language poet and I am still making things,” she said, giving us a glimpse of what laid the foundation for her work.
Lin burst into public memory by beating over 1,400 applicants to win a competition to design the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. She was still an undergraduate at Yale. Her design became controversial not only because it broke away from tradition, but also because of her race, gender, and lack of experience. Though Lin comes from accomplished Chinese families on both sides, race was something she wasn’t conscious of until she was in D.C. Her parents brought her up to speak English. She recalls they spoke Mandarin when they didn’t want her brother and her to know what they were saying. “There was a review. This journalist liked the design and titled the piece ‘An Asian Memorial for an Asian War.’ I looked at the title and thought, ‘What is he talking about?’ I thought he was reading his fascination with the East into the piece. I went ‘Uh oh!’ Because I knew we were having an issue with the designer being Asian,” Lin said.
Lin’s parents, both academics and creative thinkers, fled their homeland and left everything behind.
“I think my parents brought us up to assimilate. My father was an academic administrator at Fukien University. He came to the UW, studied ceramics, and met my mother (Julia Chang Lin), who was a poet. Typical with immigrant families, they didn’t talk about what they left behind. We were brought up without either parent teaching or wanting to teach us Chinese. It was a conscious decision on their part,” she said.
It has taken two decades for Lin to realize how her parents’ cultural identity affected her voice. Two things come out of it: the first a non-didactic approach to communication and the second a quality intrinsic to her work — the tension of opposites. Her works have influences of an Eastern philosophy striking a balance with a Western sensibility and science, striking a balance with art.
Lin said, “I am so Midwestern and yet we grew up eating off bowls my father created. The house was filled with furniture he created. There was an Asian identity. Whatever cultural heritage we have, they gave us. There’s no coincidence that I respond and relate to non-didactic ways of teaching.”
What was instilled, especially through her mother, was you had to do what was challenging and what you were passionate about. For Lin, that’s art and architecture.
The creative process
Lin has just finished Novartis’ headquarters in Cambridge. The building façade is made up of pitted white granite blocks juxtaposed with a regular-looking glass office building. During the lecture, Lin explained her thought process — the white granite design is based on a microscopic view of the human bone and the glass building represents the order that looking at nature through science and math brings.
Lin explained that her process varies with the project. “If it’s a memorial, I go in-depth into research, usually put it all aside, and instantaneously a form comes up. For my art, I have been fascinated with learning about, expressing, and being inspired by nature. I look at sonar mappings of the ocean floor and satellite tools. We have different tools at our disposal to look at, play with, and be inspired by. I’m trying to get us to rethink what the planet is and our relationship to nature. Architecture is different.
You are working around a client. You are building something for someone. My art is selfish, it’s for me. As an artist, I’ve chosen to focus on the environment. That’s really my belief, my love, my passion. Which is what art really is, or should be,” Lin explained.
Lin is usually balancing five projects at a time. “I’m always doing at least more architectural projects.
“I’m now working on Smith College’s Nielsen Library and gearing up for two shows at the Pace Gallery in the fall. I’ve got about three other commissions,” she said. “And then there’s ‘What is Missing?’”
The last memorial
Lin called ‘What is Missing?’ her last official memorial. She set it up as her own not-for-profit foundation and will contribute to it for life. “It has a real emphasis on the environment. I put the facts out and walk away. It’s an activist-oriented project. I want to wake you up about the crisis in biodiversity loss, link it to habitat loss for which climate change is a massive factor, and I want to offer solutions. We can make a huge difference protecting species and reducing emissions. As an artist, I like to get you to rethink what it is that you are working at,” she said.
The project uses technology and is unfolding in real time. “In all my memorials, time has been a huge driving, underlying structure. For Missing, there is the past — what we have lost, but more importantly, pointing out things you don’t even realize are missing like the sounds of songbirds, the scale of species, the abundance of species. Emotionally, you connect to what’s missing by asking people to account what they personally witnessed disappear and link it to present conservationists,” she said.
She has 40 conservation groups participating and giving the project stories. Lin is asking people to not only reflect on what’s been lost, but look around and see what needs to get done and tell a conservation story. Then comes the future, which is Greenprint — envisioning plausible future scenarios, the what ifs. The project leaves you with interesting facts, like in the 1890s, the Atlantic Cod was as large as a human male or how oysters off the New York coast were 12 inches in diameter.
Lin gets you to rethink the problem by presenting a lot of data in infographics that push you to think of an out-of-the-box solution.
Politics, the environment, and the arts
Lin is also focusing on rethinking jobs. She cited research that says for every million dollars spent when land is leased or sold to oil, gas, or coal, five jobs are created. If you put the million into a natural park, you get 20 to 50 jobs in perpetuity and property values go up. This brings us to today’s political scenario.
“It is a very dark moment in history. Sixty-nine percent of Americans agree that climate is changing. The most terrifying thing is that there is a gag order, so the EPA can’t use the term climate change. That is censoring solid scientific research. It’s a disaster for the world and us. The most heartening thing that happened after the elections was saying uphold the Paris Climate Accord. I’m a firm believer in that and signed on as one of the companies. The good news is that cities, states, and countries are moving, they have been moving, and will continue to move (towards a sustainable future),” she said.
Lin brings up the recent bid to sell public land the size of the state of Connecticut. “That was outrageous and today it’s off. Now is the time to use the internet, your voice. Get out there, complain. Support companies that are doing the right thing. Boycott those that are going to try to take full advantage of the disassembly of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It’s dangerous for our health, let alone that you are not allowed to talk about climate change if you are a federal employee. They are going after basic health issues. I don’t think people voted for that. Corporations will blame it on jobs being hurt, but jobs have not been hurt. We’ve been a thriving economy. If you look at the 2008 financial collapse, it was caused by lax regulations in the banking industry. You really want to push that button again? This is a time for everyone, artists, writers, journalists,” Lin urged. ■
You can contribute to Lin’s What is Missing Project at whatismissing.net.
Visit mayalin.com for a view of her works.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.