Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

Maya Lin's liquid vision of power and tranquility is quietly radical



As a woman, it is obvious to me that Maya Lin's work is informed by an essential feminism.

At the very beginning of her career, in her iconic Vietnam War memorial, Lin refused to celebrate heroism. She offered us instead what could be considered a female artist's vision, a memorial meant for those left behind, the mournful mothers of the soldiers killed in battle.

Lin's concern with the environment is rooted in the nurturing feminine. She has become a powerful voice in the sustainability movement with What Is Missing?, an interactive website and public engagement program that profiles species and biomes on the brink of extinction, with special emphasis on bodies of water.

In A History of Water at Orlando Museum of Art, Lin groups together much of her work from the past decade exploring rivers and oceans, water's forms and its power. Lin exhibited a similar range of works at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle in 2006, but here she includes several relevant references to Florida's geographical and cultural dependency on water.

"2x4 Landscape," the installation immediately visible upon entering the museum, subtly reveals its female forms and sensibilities. It is composed of a few thousand vertical 2-by-4 lumber strips configured as a rising 10-foot-tall wave, its voluptuous shapes heavy with the budding life inside them. The tension between the "masculine" material employed (construction lumber) and the "feminine" form into which it has been shaped by Lin (its smooth curves) challenges the viewers' perception of male and female attributes. Water itself is the domain of women: We wash laundry, we bathe ourselves and our children, and, in many cultures, we are responsible for finding (and hauling!) water. "2x4 Landscape" is a feminist statement.

Lin's Pin Rivers also have a delicacy associated with the feminine. The installations are linear views of several river systems, composed of tens of thousands of straight pins pushed into the wall to create a flow of silver. (A subtle environmental message is underscored by the slightly exaggerated forward swelling of the pins at the multiple dam sites on the river.) The metallic lines are softened by the shadows the pins create on the walls. These wall sculptures are design/decorative objects that I could imagine wearing as an oversize brooch at a sci-fi themed dinner party. But the pins stuck into the wall are also brutal and cerebral, expressing the two sides to Lin's work: the architect and the artist.

The "Water Line" installation (pictured on the cover) follows the underwater landscape around Bouvet Island, a remote sub-Antarctic landmass. Using data provided by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Lin and her studio assistants developed a topographic rendering of the sea floor, which was translated into architectural scale and fabricated from quarter-inch diameter aluminum tubes. The shadows add an important dimension to this installation, which, like the others, is both welcoming and reserved, clear and confusing – is it a net coming down on the viewer, or a surface at which we're gazing upward? Power and noise, the masculine attributes of water, are negated in this work. The installation is serene and quiet, conveying Lin's complex and compelling vision of power and tranquility.

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