from The New York Times April, 28, 2013
Maya Lin's New Memorial Is a City
by Carol Kino
Try to get Maya Lin to talk about her new show at Pace Gallery in New York, and she’s more likely to deliver a passionate lecture on the environment. "It’s not just that we need to change behavior,” Ms. Lin said, striding through Hudson River Park one blustery morning early this month. “Legislation has to happen. Government has to be behind it!”
Before long her attention turned to the ground and her memory of the brackish swells that flooded it last October during Hurricane Sandy. “I think Sandy was a real wake-up call,” said Ms. Lin, who is an artist and architect. “Nature is going to reach out whether you notice it or not. It’s going to come and say hello.”
This fervor seemed a real contrast to the carefully spoken figure Ms. Lin has presented to the world since 1981, when her winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington made her an international celebrity while still a senior at Yale in Connecticut.
In the past, Ms. Lin said, her approach had been to “stay back, list the facts and let you conclude it for me” — her goal being to subtly reframe a familiar viewpoint, as with a landscape or a war. A similar approach pervades her artworks, too, like "Wave Field", a 2009 earthwork at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., which fills a four-hectare valley with mounds of earth that seem to undulate like ocean waves.
But, in a sense, Hurricane Sandy also woke up Ms. Lin. Soon after the floodwaters receded, she decided she wanted her latest show at Pace — her first conceived specifically for a commercial gallery — to fix on Manhattan and its surrounding landscape, environmental history and waterways.
“I really wanted people to understand more about literally what’s right under their feet,” she said. “I wanted to really focus on revealing aspects of New York, which we might not be thinking about from a natural, topographic, environmental point of view.”
Called "Here and There", the show opened this past Friday at Pace’s 57th Street gallery and runs through June 22. (Sculptures inspired by the world’s waterways can be seen in the “There” part of the exhibition, at Pace London through May 11.)
Among the show’s highlights are three of the “pin rivers” Ms. Lin has been making since 2006, part of a series that will eventually include all the major rivers and estuaries of the world. Using thousands of stainless-steel pins and the shadows they cast, she creates wall reliefs that suggest aerial contour maps.
One traces the Hudson River and its major tributaries; another picks out some of the many streams that still meandered through Midtown Manhattan a century ago.
The largest marks the boundaries of Sandy’s flood plain — a subject that, as Ms. Lin notes, is even harder to represent than an overbuilt urban stream.
“A flood doesn’t exist except in our memory banks,” she said. “It’s a temporal event. It’s not the river and it’s not the land. It’s neither here nor there.”
Also on view are rivers cast from recycled silver and carved marble sculptures of the globe. But the show’s most unexpected aspect is a space devoted to her Web site What Is Missing?, begun in 2011 as part of a larger memorial to vanishing species and habitats worldwide. “I see it as a guerilla artwork,” she said.
The Web site at first offers a world map shimmering with points of colored light. Click on one, and you find entries about the vanished oysters of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, or the once-abundant sturgeon of the Hudson River, or the long-gone beavers, foxes and flying squirrels of Manhattan. Clicking elsewhere unveils the natural sound of the ocean, now often obscured by sonar and shipping noise; footage of the blue fin tuna, overfished to near-extinction; or stories about the starry night skies that are no longer visible above Wuhan, the most densely populated city in Central China. (The piece is represented in the gallery by about 100 of the Hudson River entries, projected on the walls.)
Ms. Lin began planning the Missing project more than 20 years ago, calling it her last memorial. (She has created four others, including the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated in 1989.) Its official debut took place at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco in 2009, where videos that are now on the site play within a sculpture that suggests the horn of an old-fashioned gramophone. Additional videos, made for the New York public arts organization Creative Time, were shown in Times Square in April 2010.
Ms. Lin said that the project, still a work in progress, would eventually comprise more physical installations at different institutions around the world, in addition to the Web site.
She now works on it in her spare time with one assistant, as well as a handful of volunteer advisers, like Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society who wrote “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City” (2009). “Obviously it’s a very heavy advocacy-type piece,” Ms. Lin said. “I’m preaching. ‘Missing’ is a very different creature for me.”
Like the rest of her work, it arose from Ms. Lin’s passion for nature. Growing up in a college town, Athens, Ohio, she and her brother played constantly in the woods and streams that surrounded their house. Even then, she said, “I really very seriously wondered how any one species has a right to pretty much overrun the planet.”
Ms. Lin is also fascinated by maps. She frequently plays around with them in her SoHo studio, often carving new lakes and craters into the pages of old atlases, or redrawing the waterways on cartographic computer printouts, which her assistants assemble from the reams of topographical data that go into her larger projects. She jokingly calls this process “taking walks around the world.”
Many of her artworks, like the pin rivers and “Wave Field,” have evolved directly from these so-called walks. Ms. Lin also does a lot of research for each piece, and developing one can take years.
“Maya is a wonk,” said Richard Andrews, who was the curator for Ms. Lin’s 2006-09 museum show, “Systematic Landscapes,” which opened at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle and then toured the country. “She’s out there trying to understand what’s happening in science, environmental science, climate change. She ends up distilling it down to a relatively small number of works that are deceptively simple in form.”
Raymund Ryan, the architecture curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which presented Ms. Lin’s most recent museum survey last spring, likened her studio to a laboratory.
“It’s this very interesting amalgam of the artistic impulse and the rationalist impulse,” he said. “She’s aiming to get the most precise result from a set of questions.”
Ms. Lin’s main motivation may be her intense curiosity. She eventually admitted that while walking along the Hudson — even as she spoke about her fears for the environment — she had really been studying the water’s surface.
“How does a wave form itself?” she said. “How does it dissipate? I want to visualize iy, because I don't understand it."