Creating and Remembering: The works of Maya Lin

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Maya Lin with her sculpture Blue Lake Pass (2006) via Bruce K. Huff—San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press/Alamy
Maya Lin with her sculpture Blue Lake Pass (2006) © Bruce K. Huff—San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press/Alamy

By examining past experiences and the fast-changing pace of today’s world, one cannot help but note humanity’s tendency to overlook the potential of memory. Relegating it solely to the confines of our minds, we fail to realize that history, with all its richness, contains many echoes of the past not only in our thoughts but also within the objects and processes that surround us.

Intriguingly, memory resides in diverse and sometimes seemingly contrasting fields like design and science, art and architecture, natural and artificial. But do these contrasting domains hold complementary types of memories? Should we delineate boundaries, adding ‘tags’ to be able to differentiate disciplines that potentially harbor equally profound memories?

Maya Lin, a visionary whose work constantly oscillates the boundaries of art and architecture for storytelling, offers a resounding answer to these questions.

“Sometimes I focus on a river or body of water for environmental importance; at other times, I am drawn to the form itself.”

Maya Lin
Bodies of Water
© Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

Born in Athens, Ohio, to a family deeply involved in the arts and academia, Maya Lin was raised amidst the intellectual atmosphere of Ohio University. With her mother being a poet and literature professor and her father a renowned ceramic artist and Dean of Fine Arts, Lin’s journey was shaped by a rich tapestry of influences. Ultimately, these factors have provided a fertile ground for her creative endeavors.

Lin’s career could easily be compared to a flowing river that has steadily been defying various limitations. During her university years at Yale University, her professors told her to choose between architecture and art. Combining the two was and is, even nowadays, perceived as unimaginable as believed to be lying on divergent paths, with each having its own aesthetic trajectory.

Despite the discussed conflict(s), Maya Lin’s studies in architecture and sculpture have helped her establish a firm foundation for a practice that constantly navigates the intersection of art and architecture. As Lin herself aptly observes, “…making architecture is like writing a novel. Making a work of art is like writing a poem.” (The New York Times, 2008)

Therefore, in this exploration, we dive into Lin’s remarkable body of work, likely comparable to an exciting, captivating, and immersive adventure novel. Within this novel, the seemingly disparate elements find harmony, embodying a fusion of East and West, past and present, art and science.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Lin’s philosophy has always been tightly related to memory and past. Her belief that the sole way of finding paths to better future lies through facing and acknowledging the past has found its vivid expression in her winning proposal for the memorial of Vietnam War veterans. The minimalist concept, created during her senior year at Yale, represents a departure from traditional memorial formats that mostly featured “figurative, heroic sculptures.”

Nevertheless, and in spite of the initial controversy, the polished black granite V-shaped wall inscribed with the names of approximately 58,000 individuals who perished or went missing in action during the Vietnam War has later on become a prototype for American war memorials. In the Academy Award-winning documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” Lin describes the memorial not as an object placed upon the Earth but as a cut into the Earth itself, serving as a mirror between the realms and embodying the enduring power of memory and remembrance in a single, profound gesture.

Ghost Forest

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin Studio
© Andy Romer, courtesy MSPC

With Maya Lin’s keen understanding that memories are not solely transmitted through people but also through nature, her project “Ghost Forest” symbolizes a poignant convergence of art and nature, with the foundational element being environmental advocacy. Lin’s work cleverly utilizes nature as inspiration, breaking the conventional idea of it as a ground to be conquered, and invites viewers to pause and contemplate the profound beauty of the natural world. She sheds light on the urgency of addressing climate change by juxtaposing the public with a series of carefully selected dying trees (victims of rising sea levels and hurricanes).

The installation, comprising 49 ghostly trees, could be understood as her way of bringing a ‘ghost forest’ to Manhattan to not only raise awareness among urban dwellers but also expose and learn to appreciate the haunting beauty of nature. As Lin herself articulates, such methodology is expected to evoke an emotional response that would be powerful enough to compel individuals into taking action. All in all, through “Ghost Forest,” the visionary challenges viewers to observe and appreciate beauty in decay and harmony in death, confront the impermanence of life, and to seek balance and harmony within the natural world before it’s too late.

Storm King Wave Field

Storm King Wave Field by Maya Lin Studio
© Jerry Thompson, courtesy Storm King Art Center

“Storm King Wavefield” is a monumental artwork located in upstate New York that comprises seven rows of hills shaped like ocean waves. It is part of Lin’s series of works called ” Wavefields. ” This explicit piece is considered to be her largest art-specific installation and marks the culmination of her exploration of water wave formations translated into large-scale earthworks.

The installation’s design features complex, compound curves, creating a dynamic and subtle spatial reading. By mirroring the scale of actual ocean waves (22300 m2), it allows viewers to experience the feeling analogous to being at sea, losing sight of adjacent waves. And drawing them into the landscape for a sense of total immersion. The dramatic shadows, cast from the grass waves rising 3-4.5 meters high, form dark valleys all throughout the scenery and mimic the dynamic play of light and shadow on the water.

By transforming a large-scale landscape into an interactive and dynamic space, Lin blends art with environment and encourages a deeper appreciation for beauty and versatility of nature, fostering new relationships between people and the natural world.

A Fold in the Field

A Fold in the Field
© David Hartley-Mitchell, courtesy Gibbs Farm

Drawing inspiration from water behavior and wave formations, a project with a similar aim of recalling the memories natural phenomena have to offer and reintroducing the viewer’s relationship with the landscape, called “A Fold in the Field,” exhibits a more geometric and subtle approach. Seamlessly integrating harmoniously with the landscape of New Zealand, the designed five undulating earth waves respond to the existing site through a systematic ordering of terrain. Such an approach clearly demonstrates a more sensitive side of Lin’s philosophy compared with the typical human interventions that tend to create an absolute disparity with nature.

Conceptualized initially on a simple paper fold, the installation echoes the waves shaped by the westerly weather of the coastline and the gravitational slide of land toward the sea. These folds introduce an element of abstracted formality into the landscape, as well as create a sense of movement and transformation by disrupting the flat plain of the field. The work’s dynamic quality is further amplified by the interplay of light and wind, bringing the sculpted hills to life and fostering a deeper connection with the environment.

Bodies of Water

Black Sea (Bodies of Water series), 2006. Baltic birch plywood. © Maya Lin Studio, courtesy of Pace Gallery
Black Sea (Bodies of Water series), 2006. Baltic birch plywood. © Maya Lin Studio, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Lin’s works often reinterpret natural objects, and the series ‘Bodies of Water’ is no exception. In her tradition of memorializing critical issues, this work is designed with a focus on environmental preservation and the earth’s disappearing natural features. The three large-scale sculptures created using stratified plywood layers, reveal the underwater topographies of the Red, Black, and Caspian seas. Presented as three-dimensional masses, the seas are unraveled through the display of their complex volumes and the beauty rarely visible to an ordinary eye.

Yet again, Lin’s approach presents these bodies of water in a novel form, encouraging viewers to reevaluate their perspective on familiar natural features by gracefully intertwining the two contrasting sides: their aesthetic appeal and the environmental threats they face. Such an approach makes every sculpture and object of synergy between art and science, undoubtedly transforming gallery spaces into immersive environments but also evoking a range of rather diverse emotions – inversion, confusion, clarity, and inspiration.

Decoding The Tree of Life

Decoding The Tree of Life
© Daniel Burke Photography, courtesy UPHS

With Maya Lin’s ability to conjure unfamiliar thoughts by displaying familiar objects, she tries to bring back the memories of not only the things of temporary nature (occurring, one-time events, scenarios of disappearance etc.), but also reminds us of the things that are, and will always be there.
As in the case of “Decoding the Tree of Life,” featured in Penn Medicine’s Pavilion, Maya Lin also demonstrates her ability to shed light on merging art with environmental conservation and incorporate science. Suspended in the Pavilion’s atrium, this intricate installation greets patients with a structure composed of hundreds of thousands of reflective glass beads.

Drawing inspiration from the shape of DNA, the branches of a tree, and the Schuylkill River, the structure presents an exploration of elements bound in a harmonious unity, emphasizing the interconnectedness and diversity of life on Earth and the genetic links that bind all living organisms. By demonstrating one interpretation of the intersection set among nature, science, and artistic expression, the two-story structure radically enhances the hospital environment. Through abstraction and simplicity, the piece conveys a multi-layered message about the engraved duality – beauty and complexity of life – a feature introduced within many of Lin’s works.

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel
© Timothy Hursley

Following the idea of art and architecture as means of creating a bridge between people and communities and fostering a sense of unity and reflection, Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel, designed in collaboration with Bialosky and Partners, offers its visitors to witness the idea of functional and deeply meaningful spaces. The chapel was built for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a prominent civil rights charity founded by Marian Wright Edelman with a purpose of protecting and nurturing underprivileged children. According to Glancey (2020), it serves as a place of refuge and congregation for people of all creeds. Ultimately, the structure, demonstrating no signs of conventional religious symbolism, makes it an inclusive space for contemplation and spiritual connection.

Situated beside a pond in an orchard, this hand-crafted work of art resembles an ark, harmoniously blending with the rural landscape (mainly woods and low hills). It features a timber ark form with a pointed prow, complemented by a pavilion and a small concrete building incorporating the pastor’s office, kitchen, restrooms, and a small belfry. Interestingly, the structure is clad in local rift-sawn cypress, which are expected to weather into a silver grey over time, merging seamlessly with the traditional farm buildings in the area. The chapel is a perfect combination of subtle yet monumental forms, which, combined with the thoughtful handling of natural light, creates a spiritual ambiance that invites visitors to heal by reconnecting with the surroundings.

Reading a garden

Reading a garden
© Rose Marie Cromwell

Located at the Cleveland Public Library’s Eastman Reading Garden, “Reading a Garden” is an art installation designed by Maya Lin that intertwines art, architecture, nature, and poetry and exhibits an intellectually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing space. The installation centers around an L-shaped black granite fountain that is intricately inscribed with stainless steel letters that represent portions of an abstract poem by Lin’s brother, Tan Lin.

Originally created by librarian Linda Eastman in 1937 after the erection of the Cleveland Public Library’s main branch in 1925, the reading garden was revitalized by Lin’s work, blending historical significance with modern artistic expression. (Cleveland Public Library Eastman Reading Garden | TCLF, 2023) Forming part of The Ohio Trilogy, the project serves as a reflection series on Lin’s personal connection to her home state. It features two gravel beds with trees at their centers—one with a bronze plaque inscribed with raised letters, and the other encircled by a bronze ring bearing engraved text. Surrounding pathways and stairs extend the poetic narrative, inviting visitors to engage deeply with the text as they explore the space.

Additionally, a concrete bench and coffee table with raised stainless steel letters complete the installation, ensuring full accessibility. Ultimately, the integration of poetry into physical environment, turns the act of reading into an immersive, multidirectional experience, making Lin’s installation both intellectually and emotionally enriching.

Listening Cone Installation at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences
Listening Cone Installation at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences

In conclusion, Maya Lin’s body of work invites audiences to engage deeply with both memory and nature. Through the crafted narratives that masterfully bridge the realms of art, architecture, and environmental advocacy, her projects reveal an unwavering commitment to preserving the past and addressing contemporary issues related to the environment. It is, therefore, that her works are a testament to her vision of art as a medium for reflection, education, and inspiration, which urges humanity to reconsider our relationship with history, nature, and each other.

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