Thursday, March 19, 2009

Maya Lin: Artist/Environmentalist

When I first moved to DC to attend University, I used to go running down on the mall on a regular basis. For months, I ran by the reflecting pool, up the hill to the Washington Monument, around the Smithsonian carousel . . . but I somehow always missed the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial . . .
I think that it was an unconscious decision - at first. But, after a while, as I exhausted my supply of monuments to explore, I realized that I was avoiding it.

On purpose.

On a subsequent run, as I let my thoughts Zen-out, I came to the realization that I felt anxious . . . fearing the emotions I expected to feel from being so close to the black memorial I side-glanced at so many times. So many names . . . the memorial seemed unbearably intimate even from far away.
Finally, one day, I decided to overcome my fears . . . I jogged over. It was an overcast day, with a slight drizzle. I don't remember what time of the year it was, but it wasn't too crowded . . . just a small stream of beleaguered vets with family, a few damp teddy bears, some Japanese tourists taking photos.

As I walked along the memorial, the wall rising above my head, the names multiplying, my face staring back at me, I was overwhelmed with emotion. So many died! Many of them no older than me. It was a war that some say changed our nation - the way we viewed conflict, the way we reported on it. And Maya Lin's memorial was a reflection of that. No white columns of grand marble proclaiming our victory - but a monument that forced you into quiet self-reflection. I cried. A lot.

As you can imagine, I felt immensely fortunate to have been invited to an early press briefing for Maya Lin's new exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art: "Systematic Landscapes". And no, I was not invited because of my run past the memorial many years ago. I was invited to cover the fact that Maya Lin is a self-proclaimed “committed environmentalist” and her new exhibit exemplifies this commitment in theme and material.

First, her theme: According to the Corcoran website, the exhibition is focused on: “how people perceive and experience the landscape in a time of heightened technological influence and environmental awareness.” Chatting with reporters, Maya Lin mentioned her interested in making viewers “more aware of the spaces we don't see.”
This was especially obvious in the Bodies of Water Series. Of this installation, Maya Lin said that she aimed to “challenge our ability to imagine a largely invisible underwater geography”. I was honestly mesmerized by the installation – and spent most of my time in that exhibit space. I am not sure what Maya Lin envisioned when she designed and crafted the Bodies of Water Series, but my thoughts strayed to the material used: wood. A living matter, yet dying as soon as it is cut off from its nutrients, removed from the bio-cycle. The seas represented in this series are also dying, cut off from the bio-cycle by human actions: pollution, overfishing, overuse . . .

A little about the three seas she included:

- The Caspian is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth by area – and is endangered due to industrial emissions, toxic and radioactive wastes, agricultural run-off, sewage and leaks from oil extraction and refining.
- The Dead Sea has been rapidly shrinking because of unsustainable diversion of incoming water.
- The Red Sea is among the most endangered in the world. The coral reefs and unique marine life is being threatened by construction, too many water craft, over fishing and pollution.
Some photos from the Bodies of Water Series:

And, her materials: The wood used in her “hill inside” piece called 2x4 Landscape is all SCS-certified. The particle board used in her other large installation, Blue Lake Pass, is formaldehyde free. A silver model of the Chesapeake Bay (which I did not get to see since it was late being delivered) is made from reclaimed silver from film negatives and x-rays. She was also surprisingly articulate on world deforestation and reforestation issues – even as discussed in the UNFCC climate change negotiations (I thought only us climate geeks knew anything about REDD).

Overall, I found the artist to be incredibly accessible and relatable.

Her creations reminded me of Christo and Andy Goldsworthy (two favorite artists) – if they had mixed their artistic DNA with a background in architecture. Yet, her pieces communicated a completely unique perspective.

In summary, Maya Lin continues to show us art that represents our new realities, as the world changes irrevocably . . . with every war and every lost body of water.

Maya speaking with Washington Post reporter under the Water Line.

Blue Lake Pass

More Photos from the press briefing here.

Many Thanks to Mark Silva Photography for coming with us and taking amazing photos.

Me, under the Water Line.


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