Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Maya Lin: Memory and Landscape

This past week I had the pleasure of listening to Maya Lin speak at Oberlin College. If you’ve heard Maya Lin’s name before, in all likelihood you know that she created the Vietnam War Memorial and the Women’s Table at Yale University. I still remember first learning of Lin’s work in an introductory art history survey course my freshman year of college. As survey courses typically go, we only brushed upon her two major career highlights. Lin’s presentation was intriguing to me because it introduced me to all of her lesser-known work and her intentions behind her creations. In particular, her work seemed to focus on the themes of memory and landscapes.

A number of her series, including her current show “Here and There,” combine these two interests by showing the disappearance of natural features. The works that best represent this idea in her present show are her “Disappearing Bodies of Water” that include sculptures of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea over time. In many ways these sculptures look like topographic maps. Her collaborative web memorial "What is Missing?"and her film “How to Unchop a Tree” also deal with the loss of the environment over time. Lin's website seems unique to me because in a way it redefines what is considered a memorial because of its virtual nature. Instead of having to visit a physical site to honor something or someone that has passed, clicking on a link is now the equivalent of a journey of remembrance.
A statistic that she mentioned a few times during her presentation that similarly drove home the idea that there is (or has been) so much on earth that we cannot see is that the island of Hawaii is actually 500 ft. taller than Mount Everest. Like the huge volume of water that has vanished from the earth, the massiveness of the mountain that forms the island of Hawaii is also unseen.

By pure coincidence, I also had the opportunity to see one of Lin’s created landscapes in person this past week. While I was down in Athens, OH, to run a half-marathon and visit my little brother who goes to the university there, I got the chance to explore her piece “Input.” The work is composed of a series of rectangular indentations and projections that are supposed to represent IBM punch cards. Her brother, Tan, composed a poem for the piece. The words of the poem are found on the concrete edges of the rectangular boxes. While I did not love the piece, I found a lot of the text intriguing. I especially enjoyed the phrases that were related to mapping, though I haven’t quite figured out the meaning of the piece as a whole. She mentioned several times that the work is in a way her own personal tribute to Athens. I was surprised to learn that Lin is a native of Athens and that her parents were both professors at OU. In the end I think the piece's purpose is to memorialize Lin's childhood and adolescence in the town of Athens.

"Input" in Athens, OH, on the grounds of Ohio University
"I wanted to draw a map of memories" 

"like the photograph of a landscape"

"carved out to resemble rectangular bits of binary code"

When I visit Las Vegas for my first, and probably only, time this May with my sisters, I hope that I’ll get to stop into MGM’s Mirage and see Maya Lin’s rendition of the Colorado River in silver. Listening to Lin speak about her fascination with the natural world definitely made me appreciate her work more and think more about my own obsession with the way people interact with their environments.