More Talk with Maya Lin

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Storm King Wavefield, Maya Lin, 2007-2008/photo: Jerry L. Thompson

Storm King Wavefield, Maya Lin, 2007-2008/photo: Jerry L. Thompson

Let’s continue that conversation with Maya Lin about Storm King Wavefield, the large earthwork she just unveiled at a sculpture park in upstate New York.

LACAYO: For a long time people have understood that your Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is in some ways a Minimalist work or post-Minimalist work. What the Wavefield makes you realize is that the Memorial is also an earthwork. It’s embedded in the soil and some of its power comes from the way it calls on our feelings about nature.

LIN: Yes, right.

LACAYO: I think we’re also more aware now of affinities between the Memorial and some of Richard Serra’s work, those enormous undulating steel works that aren’t so much objects as pathways and structures and even journeys.

LIN: Richard has been a great inspiration for me. Richard, James Turrell and early Robert Irwin. Also a book by Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which was so formative for me. It’s all about the Minimalist view of space, about putting people into a place where they have to react to that place without bringing in specific references to things outside. The Memorials I’ve done of course do have those outside reference points, because they connect to historical events. My other works embrace a pure formalism, but at the same time they’re embedded in the landscape, so they’re tapping into a very different psychology within us than artworks that you experience within the confines of a gallery.

LACAYO: You’ve also talked about the influence on your work of the Native American ceremonial mounds found around southern Ohio where you grew up, like the Serpent Mound, which is about 1300 feet long but only three feet high, a gentle snaking undulation in the ground that’s nonetheless manmade.

LIN: Yeah, they’re from the Hopewell and the Adena tribes. They’re just all over where I grew up.

LACAYO: But Wavefield also reminds me a bit of a classic English park, one of those parks that are completely manmade, but designed to look completely natural, so that the whole idea of what’s “natural” is undermined.

LIN: There was a small piece I did at Yale that played with that idea. I installed it in a stream outside of New Haven. I found these thin zinc reeds at a scrap yard that were 18 feet long. I just painted them green and black, waded out into the stream and placed them in a line. But there was only one viewing point, at the bend in the stream from the opposite shore, where you could tell this was a manmade intervention because that was the only point where they all lined up. From any other angle it looked like they were just part of the reeds along the bank. I went back a week later and I was standing there looking at them from across the stream, and these two fishermen were there. They were talking to one another and saying “What do you think it is? Is it alive? Is it natural?” And they turned to me and said: “What do you think it is?” And I said: “Oh, I don’t know!”

But there are times when nature itself doesn’t feel natural. I was working in the Northwest, and the landscape driving south from Spokane, I had never seen anything like it. The glacial loam it’s so beautiful, but surreal. It just doesn’t quite look natural.

LACAYO: Did you plot the curves for Wavefield with a mathematical model, or with a device, like an oscilloscope?

LIN: I didn’t. I use photographs or images from water. I use my eye. I think maybe it’s because my dad is a ceramicist, and so I grew up with clay, that I just shape them, and I keep shaping them until it feels about right. And you never, ever finish it until you’re out there with the crew, with the bulldozer operator and you’re shaping it again. This is one big difference between architecture and art. With architecture, when you have to change something on the site you do what’s called a change order, and you wanna do as few of those as possible. But with art, if it doesn’t change and morph a lot, especially when you bring it to that scale, then it might end up being too static. So I’m constantly out there at the end, fiddling with it.