The Reluctant Memorialist: Maya Lin 5

I asked Lin, while we were sitting in the cafe on Broome Street, if she had ever met Hart. “Yes, I did” was all she said at first. Well, was that unpleasant? “Yes, it was.” She paused, and took a sip of tea. “He brought his wife in, and she just was glowering at me, it seemed. He said something like, ‘Well, my statues right here will improve your piece.’ I just couldn’t believe someone could be that rude.” Opponents of Lin’s design had proposed that one of Hart’s statues be placed at the apex of Lin’s walls, the center of the memorial, with an American flag set above the wall (“like a putting green” was Lin’s comment at the time). Interior Secretary James Watt held up a building permit until the fund agreed to add the flag and a sculpture. Ultimately, both—Hart’s sculpture was a rendering of three larger-than-life servicemen—were placed three hundred feet from one end of the wall. Lin received a $20,000 prize; Hart was paid more than $300,000.
Lin learned about the compromise not from the veterans, and not even from Cooper-Lecky, a firm she had chosen over the veterans’ objections. She learned about it from the press. “They could have said, ‘Maya, we had to do this,’ ” she said, about the veterans. “They didn’t have the stomach to tell me.” After that, she felt that she could trust no one. “I was an untouchable in Washington,” she said. “I remember trying to call Bush—he’s a Yalie, maybe he can help me out. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”
She was befriended by the Washington Post’s architecture critic, Wolf Von Eckardt, who, with his friend Judith Martin (known to the world as Miss Manners), took Lin in. When Lin felt she was being rebuffed by the veterans, Von Eckardt got her story into the Post. She ended up admiring the group most people in Washington fear and loathe. “The reporters were great,” she told me. “I always felt that you knew what you were going to get.”
She also had to fight over the listing of the names. She had them arranged chronologically, but some veterans worried that this would make it difficult for visitors to find a name, and they insisted that the names be alphabetical. Lin finally prevailed when it was pointed out that more than six hundred people who died in Vietnam were named Smith. Seventeen were called James Jones. In her design, the names begin at the apex, starting with the year 1959, and run to the end of the right-hand wall and then back down from the left-hand side, ending at the apex again, with 1975. It is a circle, closed by the viewer. The wall is black granite, polished so that it will reflect. You look into the underground, where the dead are buried, and you see, behind their names, the ghost of your face.
Lin has a simple view of what the disputes boiled down to: she was the only one who understood that her design would work. She expresses no surprise that the memorial has been almost universally accepted as a success, even by some of its most obnoxious early critics. She always knew that she was right. When the wall was being constructed, the fund’s project director, Robert Doubek, asked her what she thought people would do when they first saw it. “I think he wanted me to say, They’re gonna love it,’ ” Lin told the Times, when she recounted the story. “And I said something like ‘Well, I think they’re going to be really moved by it.’ What I didn’t tell him is that they are probably going to cry and cry and cry.’’
People say that Lin’s memorial is a popularization of the edgier kind of public-art pieces that were being made elsewhere at the time. (Serra’s notorious Tilted Arc, for example, also, basically, a wall in a public space, was installed in the plaza of the Federal Building in lower Manhattan in 1981. It was removed, after protests, in 1989.) People say that the idea of a contemplative memorial was already imagined by the organizers of the competition. And people say that the memorial transcends politics. These responses all miss the brilliance of what Lin did. The Vietnam Memorial is a piece about death for a culture in which people are constantly being told that life is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t say that death is noble, which is what supporters of the war might like it to say, and it doesn’t say that death is absurd, which is what critics of the war might like it to say. It only says that death is real, and that in a war, no matter what else it is about, people die. Lin has always said that she kept quiet about her politics while her work was being built, and she has kept quiet since. Maintaining that the memorial is apolitical is the civic thing to do: reconciliation is what we want memorials to promote. But the conservatives were not mistaken. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the great antiwar statements of all time.
There was talk at the time Lin’s piece was built of closing the Mall to further memorials, but the National Park Service home page for the Vietnam Memorial describes it as consisting of “three components”: Lin’s wall, Hart’s Three Servicemen (plus flagpole), and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a sculpture of four figures, set three hundred feet from the opposite end of the wall from Hart’s statue. The Women’s Memorial, honoring “all women who served in Vietnam,” was designed by Glenna Goodacre; it was dedicated in 1993, after years of lobbying. Lin thinks it’s kitsch. Directly across from the Vietnam Memorial, on the other side of the reflecting pool, there is a Korean War Veterans Memorial—designed by Lin’s old architect of record, Cooper-Lecky, and dedicated in 1995. Among its hodgepodge of elements is a long, polished black wall with faces etched into it, like reflections. It reads as a knockoff of Lin’s design. “I can’t go there,” Lin said to me when I showed her a photograph. “I don’t want to go there. It’s painful. They cerebralize: it’s, like, ‘Oh, we’ll fake the reflection.’ You can’t fake the reflection. It is the re¬flection.” A huge Second World War memorial is next. The Mall has become a theme park.

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