The Reluctant Memorialist: Maya Lin 6

The response is where Lin starts her work as a designer. She creates, essentially, backward. There is no image in her head in the beginning, only an imagined feeling. Often, she writes an essay explaining what the piece is supposed to do to the people who encounter it. She says that the form just comes to her, sometimes months later, fully developed, an egg that shows up on the doorstep one day. She rarely tinkers with it. She is, in other words, an artist of a rather pure and intuitive type.
This makes her an outsider in the world of architecture. Her work is not witty or allusive or high-concept; it has no pop elements. She is not a modernist or a formalist, either; she does not create pieces whose elements are in dialogue only with themselves. She’s accustomed to being an outsider, or to feeling like one, and although she frets about it a little, she obviously cultivates the feeling.
It gives her the edge (carefully veiled, most of the time) that she seems to require. In one of our conversations, she told me about a sculpture that she had been invited to create for the lobby of an office building designed by the architect Helmut Jahn, in Des Moines. She requested a site model of the lobby from Jahn’s office. She received a model of the grounds, with the building represented by a Styrofoam box. The implication was that she was free to make something outside, but Jahn’s building was off limits. “Here comes this solid box, like, ‘Don’t touch me,’ ” she said, “and so, of course, I had no choice. Upstairs, here’s this two-story glass wall. It’s not my style. So, if I ran water down the inside of it, I could very quietly subvert his entire space without ever creating architecture.” She cracked the wall and put a stream inside. And how did Jahn take it? “He was fine,” she said, quickly. Then she laughed. “I mean, we never really spoke,” she said.
But Lin designs buildings, too, and one of her chronic anxieties is whether she is essentially an artist who practices architecture or an architect who makes art, and whether it matters. Frank Gehry, one of her teachers at Yale, told her to forget about the distinction and just make things, “the best advice—actually, the only advice— I’ve ever been given from the architectural world,” she has said. It doesn’t seem to have solved the problem, though. She admires Gehry’s work, but she says that the person who inspired her was Richard Serra, whom Gehry brought in to critique student work. “Richard was amazing,” she said. “I went through a very bleak graduate school, where I didn’t get that much food for what I was after, and that was amazing—that one moment, where there’s Richard, giving us a crit.”
One of the few shows she has been to since her children were born (her older daughter is four) was Serra’s, last fall, at the Gagosian Gallery, in Chelsea. The exhibition drew enthusiastic crowds and for some New Yorkers marked the spiritual reopening of downtown. Serra’s huge pieces, Torqued Spirals, which the viewer walks into by following a dauntingly high, tilting steel wall that spirals inward, she loved for their massiveness and their sense of surprise. The artists she identifies with are all men who work on a large scale: Serra, Smithson, Michael Heizer, James Turrell—people who make roads in the desert and turn canyons into works of art. Compared with their work, Lin’s is contemplative and understated. Rut she dreams of bigness. “I want to find two or three of the most toxic sites in the world,” she once said to me, “and then I could become an artist.”

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Gehry is probably right that it’s pointless to worry about whether one creates as an artist or as an architect, but if you had to put Lin in either category you would call her an artist. One of the things driving her since she left Yale has been her need to “prove” that she can do architecture; she now feels that she has made enough build¬ings to settle that question. It is not clear who, exactly, was putting her to the test, and it probably doesn’t matter. There is a kind of person whose indifference to what the rest of the world thinks is a spur to accomplishment: she will teach all these people in whose opinion she has no interest to have a good opinion of her. It’s a kind of Method acting. It gives a person her motivation. As Lin talked about her future work, it became clear that the artistic impulse—the im¬pulse to make objects and place them in the world, rather than to erect usable structures—was dominant again.
Lin has had two shows of what she calls her “studio sculpture”: Public/Private (1993) and Topologies (1997-98). One of the pieces, Topographic Landscape (1997), is a large wooden field constructed of planks cut in undulating shapes and pressed together, so that the re¬sult looks like a landscape of hills seen from an airplane. It is some¬times exhibited with a work called Avalanche, which is composed from fourteen tons of broken glass, raked into a mountainous pile in a corner of the gallery, and by several wall-mounted works that were also created by shattering thick panes of glass. Lin’s biggest broken- glass piece is called Groundswell, created for the Wexner Center for the Arts, at Ohio State University: it uses forty-three tons of glass, raked into mounds. It is easy to appreciate these works as environmental installations (which is how Lin presents them): natural materials shaped in topological contours. It takes a little longer to see that they are also refinements on destruction—just as it takes a while to see that the Vietnam Memorial is made by repairing a tear in the earth. The paradox of land art is that it is programmatically environmentalist and deferential to natural forms but is also an intrusion into the natural world of the most aggressive kind. It doesn’t simply stick human forms on top of natural ones; it reshapes nature itself. A certain degree of ego is needed to make it.

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