For Nature's Sake
Artist Maya Lin melds landscape art and ecology, drawing attention to man’s inescapable connection to nature.
By Jennifer Bails
Maya Lin, Blue Lake Pass, 2006 © Maya Lin Studio, Inc., courtesy The Pace Gallery. Photo: G. R. Christmas/Courtesy The Pace Gallery
Perhaps you know her as the 21-year old Yale architecture student who catapulted to instant celebrity when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was selected from more than a thousand proposals. Thirty years later, the black granite chevron listing the 58,272 U.S. soldiers lost during that war remains one of America’s most compelling public monuments, while its creator, Maya Lin, now 52, has evolved into one of the most visionary artists of our time. An exhibition of her work, organized by Carnegie Museum of Art curator of architecture Raymund Ryan, is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center through May 13.
Lin went on to produce several other notable monuments, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Women’s Table at Yale. From her Manhattan studio, she has designed museums, libraries, and private residences. She’s made small gallery pieces and massive earthworks, including the 11-acre Storm King Wavefield that consists of rows of undulating, grass-covered hills at the New York sculpture park.
Most of Lin’s work today is a meditation on landscape, reflecting on how humans relate to the natural world and Earth’s perilous future.
“Whether it’s a small object on a wall or a huge sculpture in a field, Maya’s artwork is about observing natural forms and representing those forms in new and surprising ways that make us more conscious of our environment,” says Ryan, who attended graduate school with Lin at Yale.
Landscape is a hot topic in architectural circles, notes Ryan, where the idea of designing “green” buildings that are in aesthetic and ecological balance with their natural surroundings is increasingly pertinent. “In the past, many architects have been accused of arrogance in imposing their vision onto unsuspecting places,” he says. “Maya’s work is clearly not about that. It’s a call to attention that we have to heed.”
Adapted from a 2010 display of Lin’s work at the Arts Club of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art exhibition features nearly two dozen of Lin’s works, including the room-sized sculpture Blue Lake Pass that represents a Rocky Mountain range using cut particleboard and the delicate lines of recycled silver called Drip/Drop reminiscent of falling water droplets.
Other highlights include a three-dimensional model of the inland Caspian Sea made from horizontal layers of plywood; crater-like geological formations painstakingly carved into recycled phonebooks and atlases; and a topographical representation of Cupertino, Calif., home to Apple’s headquarters, made from Mac boxes.
Pittsburghers can even discover new ways of looking at their own landscape through Pin River - Ohio (Allegheny & Monongahela), a new work designed specifically for the exhibition tracing the confluence of the city’s three rivers using stainless steel straight pins. As a native of Athens, Ohio—just 150 miles southeast of Pittsburgh—Lin was inspired since childhood by the topography, nature, and history of the Ohio Valley, so western Pennsylvania is familiar terrain to her. (Lin’s parents fled China just before the Communist takeover in 1949, and eventually settled near Ohio University, where they were both professors.)
An impassioned environmentalist, Lin is also in the process of creating what she calls her “final memorial.” Titled What is Missing?, this ongoing multimedia project is designed to raise awareness about the global mass extinction of plant and animal species. Excerpts from What is Missing? are being screened in the Scaife Lobby as part of the Maya Lin exhibition.
“I believe that art, at times, can look at a subject differently, and in doing so, can get people to pay closer attention,” says Lin, who was awarded the 2009 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. “What is Missing? focuses attention on issues and things that people are not even aware are disappearing— from the sheer abundance of species, to their scale … to the diminished sounds of songbirds that were so common in our childhood, to even the visibility of the stars at night.”
John Wenzel, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems at neighboring Carnegie Museum of Natural History, says he used Lin’s sculpture Groundswell on the campus of The Ohio State University to illustrate concepts of evolution while he was a biology professor there. He viewed the piles of crushed safety glass in her installation as analogous to peaks of reproductive fitness in animal populations.
“I could show my students the genetics, and it was just numbers,” Wenzel says. “Then I could ask them to go look at the sculpture, and they would feel it in their hearts.”
Lin observes and visualizes landscapes through a creative lens in a way that makes her work a perfect fit for Carnegie Museums, where natural history and art are under the same roof. “Art and nature often come close together,” says Wenzel. “People don’t go around and look at dinosaur bones and admire them strictly for engineering purposes. They admire them because they are beautiful in the same way we would see beauty in a manmade sculpture.”
Taking measures to conserve the natural beauty of our world and prevent the disappearance of more species—as Lin calls upon us to do in What is Missing?—has never been more important, he adds. “It’s only the couple generations before us and the couple right after us who will determine what the Earth will look like forever,” Wenzel says. “And destroying the world by negligence alone is not acceptable.”