The Reluctant Memorialist: Maya Lin 7

In late spring, Lin told me that she was suddenly immersed in new projects again. She has started her long-deferred memorial to extinct species—a many-sited, global project. She has accepted a commission to create environmental art in Yellowstone National Park: she will try to put Old Faithful, which is now treated as an amusement-park attraction, back into its natural setting. And she is making a work in the Pacific Northwest connected with the bicen-tennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The work, intended to commemorate the expedition from an environmentalist point of view, will be about the land that was there before Lewis and Clark arrived, about the continent we have lost.

“I am starting to talk quietly to various parties involved with the World Trade Center site, from people on the architectural and planning end to some groups of victims’ families,” Lin told me in June. “I’m just offering advice about what can be learned from the Viet¬nam Memorial.” In spite of her reluctance to associate herself publicly with the memorialization of September 11, she had, in fact, been taking calls from officials seeking her advice on the matter since shortly after the attacks. This spring, as the plans for the site started running on a very fast track—six master plans will be presented by the architectural and planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle this month, when the process for the selection of a memorial design is also scheduled to be announced—Lin began to have more frequent consultations with some of the parties to the redevelopment. She is not involved in the process as a potential designer, she told me; she’s just someone whose experience, she thinks, might be helpful.
Lin’s chief fear is that there is no unified vision for the redevelopment, and that the final plan will be an accretion of accommodations of every group that feels it has a stake in the site—the Port Authority, the landlords, the Community Board, local residents and businesses, victims’ families, firemen, policemen, and so on. In the case of a memorial, she understands that it will be impossible to in¬sulate the design process from the victims’ families, but she hopes that when their need has been articulated, the competition will be run by arts professionals, as it was for the Vietnam Memorial.
Lin is reticent about her own ideas for the site. The city has already been through two stages of memorialization, each successful, she feels, in giving form to feeling: the candles and flowers and heartbreaking “Missing” posters that appeared all over town in the weeks immediately following the attacks; and the Tribute in Light—the twin pillars of light that shone at the site this spring. “I think they’re really magical,” she told me when the lights went up. She was sorry to see them turned off after a month. But she was talking one day to a woman whose husband had died in the attack, and who complained about the lights: “We—we, the victims—don’t think it does that much.”
“It’s this ‘we’ thing,” Lin told me. “There’s this authority that’s going to say, This is mine first, then it’s going to be yours, then it’s going to be yours.’ ” That is what happened, she believes, with the Vietnam Memorial: some of the veterans couldn’t relinquish what they regarded as their moral ownership of the piece. Lin thinks that the destruction of the Trade Center wounded everyone who watched it. “At some level, we all shared it,” she said, “and that has never happened before in history. I hope that is really taken into account.”
There is another challenge facing whoever designs a World Trade Center memorial, even if it is Maya Lin, and that is the legacy of Maya Lin. The Vietnam Memorial changed the popular understanding of what a memorial should be, and it thus set the bar very high for future memorialists. Now we expect that a memorial will be interactive, and that it will visibly move the viewer. If it doesn’t make you cry, then it isn’t working. It is Lin’s strange gift—strange in a person admittedly so self-absorbed—to know how people will react to her art. She knew that visitors to the Vietnam Memorial would find it impossible not to touch the names chiseled into the wall. When she was an undergraduate, the names of Yale alumni who had died in Vietnam were being carved on a wall in Woolsey Hall, and she remembered that she couldn’t walk past without touching them. At the Vietnam Memorial, you are also touching the shadow of your own hand, coming out of the darkness.
Lin believes that what enables her to create works that people respond to emotionally is her own emotional detachment, and that what enables her to address political subjects effectively is her apolitical posture. She has emotions and politics, obviously, but making art, for her, requires shutting those parts of herself down. A lot of contemporary culture seems to take the form of the opinion piece: you read the first paragraph—sometimes you read just the title— and you don’t have to continue, because you know exactly what is going to be said. Everything is broken down into points of view, po¬sitions on a curve. If you’re off the curve, or if you pay no attention to the curve, no one seems to know how to understand you, which is one reason that Lin has no interest in her own celebrity. She doesn’t want to represent a point of view; she wants to make things.
In March, Lin attended the dedication of one of her installa¬tions, a winter garden in the lobby of the American Express Client Services Center in downtown Minneapolis. It is not a prepossessing site. The building is on a strip of large office structures; directly across the busy street is a large parking lot. The garden is inside a three-story glass box in the front of the lobby, visible from the street. Lin has turned part of the exterior wall into a waterfall, which freezes in the winter, changing the view out from the lobby and the view in from the street. There are trees, and stone benches, which are echoed in the landscaping Lin has designed outside the building. The distinctive feature of Lin’s garden is the floor, which has been warped so that it has the contours of a hill (or a burial mound). The floorboards are the same as you would find in a bowling alley— that is, they read as level—but they have been curved to create rises and dips.
I arrived early for the dedication, and the floor was roped off. I wandered around looking at it from inside and outside the building. It was not especially impressive—a curved surface with a few trees and benches. Eventually, Lin showed up, there were speeches, and the rope was cut and we went onto the floor. It felt, weirdly, like walking in the woods, where each step is registered differently in the body—a little higher or a little lower than the eye picks up from the terrain. You experienced the floor through your bones. I asked her what she thought of the work. “I want a bigger floor,” she said.
At noon the next day, Lin gave a presentation about the new winter garden to American Express employees in the cafeteria. There was a big turnout, and the audience listened intently. Lin showed slides, and explained how the work was related to some of her other pieces (like Topographic Landscape) that use similar shapes. There were questions. One was from a woman who asked Lin if she could tell them how she designed the Vietnam Memorial. Lin laughed. “No,” she said. “Not today.”

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