Talking to 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

The other day I stopped by the New York studio of Maya Lin, the artist-architect-memorial designer, to talk with her about current projects, but mostly about Storm King Wavefield, the large new earthwork she just unveiled at Storm King Art Center, the mountainside sculpture park about an hour north of Manhattan, which I was on my way up to see.

As usual I’ll split this conversation into parts.

LACAYO: In the late 1960s and ’70s you studied architecture as an undergraduate at Yale. While you were there you became abruptly famous as winner of the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which became the model that every memorial would answer to for decades to come, including the 9/11 memorial, whenever it happens, which is plainly indebted to you. You returned to Yale to do graduate study in architecture, but while you’ve continued to do memorials and architectural projects, you quickly branched out to art. Did you think of yourself all along as an artist?

LIN: After the Vietnam Veterans Memorial I went right back to Yale to study architecture because I didn’t want the Memorial to sidetrack me from my other interests. But during the three years I was in grad school I started to spend an equal amount of time in the art department My dad was dean of fine arts at Ohio University. I was casting bronzes by the time I was in high school. But my mom was more academic, with a stress on “Go get your doctorate.” So even though I was always making art, there was a side of me always striving towards the academic, and architecture was a combination of the two sides.

I had a hard time in grad school. I think my professors were always trying to guide me — I had just gotten the coup of the century with the Memorial, so why wasn’t I behaving more like an architect? But I had started to think more like an artist. As much as I love architecture my processes and my premises are much more those of an artist. I’m very committed to buildings but I won’t give up the art.

After I finished the Civil Rights Memorial [in Montgomery, Alabama in 1989] I said “Okay, that will be it for me, two pieces that focus on funereal issues, on death.” But as it turns out I’ve taken on other historical projects. Now I’m doing a very complex project called “Confluence” with the Native American tribes along the Lewis and Clark Trail. They asked me if I would get involved as the 200th anniversary of the expedition was approaching. When I realized who was asking, I couldn’t turn it down.

LACAYO: You’re also working now on “What Is Missing?”, a “memorial” for endangered species and habitats in formats and platforms all around the world — sound art installations, an e-book, electronic billboards, the Internet.

LIN: It will launch in September at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as a sculpture installation. At the same time it will launch as a traveling exhibit up at Storm King and also on the MTV billboard in Times Square as a five-minute video piece. It’s my first foray into video work.

LACAYO: And now there’s also the Wavefields at Storm King Mountain.

LIN: That’s the third and last of three works in the ground that have been inspired by wave formations. The first one, at the University of Michigan in 1995, was 10,000 sq. ft. It was based on a naturally repeating water wave called a Stokes Wave and it was human scale. You could sit in it. The waves were three to five feet high and scaled to you.

The next one, near the federal courthouse in Miami, was 30,000 sq. ft. That one took as a model when water goes over sand and creates a ripple. Storm King started being 90,000 sq. ft. but ended up being about 240,000 sq. ft., set in an 11-acre reclamation of an old gravel pit. At Storm King I’m working with the idea of what happens when those waves go above your head, when you lose scale and become part of the trough system and your views are occluded.