Three Ways of Looking at the Earth
PaceWildenstein Gallery September 10 – October 24, 2009
Storm King Art Center Permanent Installation
Maya Lin’s current exhibition is difficult to view without questioning how its specificity of materials and forms describe her environmental concerns. Three Ways of Looking at the Earth at PaceWildenstein displays three sculptural pieces central to her traveling museum exhibition Systematic Landscapes whose last stop, fittingly, was in Washington, D.C., where 27 years ago this November Lin’s Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was dedicated.
Each work is based on particular landmasses, formations, or features, most from specific locations. Occupying a footprint of 1,900 square feet, “2 X 4 Landscape” (all works 2006) articulates an elegantly swelling hill with two-by-four wood boards that resemble computer pixels, while vertical sheets of particleboard in “Blue Lake Pass” create box-like forms whose topographical ridges represent contours inspired by Southwestern Colorado. “Water Line” is a network of aluminum wire suspended at eye level, generated from research with scientists to visualize the ocean floor of the Mid-Atlantic ridge.
A maker of works that often fall into or between the genres of public art/memorials, studio art, and architecture, Lin views the earth through the diverse lenses of computer technology, science, mathematics, and environmentalism. Inspired by “how incredibly beautiful the world is” and a “strong respect and love for the land,” her sculptures intend to evoke not only this beauty but also environmental subjects such as fertilizers, deforestation, sustainable lumber, green turtles, and river dams. However, the specificity of these gallery works is not in their geographical inspirations or their embedded environmental messages, but rather in their polished, reductive material structures and forms. These structures inform an idea of what you are looking at but not the details of an actual place.
Paradoxically, Lin has not included information indicating the environmentalist concerns reflected in these pieces, but rather chooses materials suggesting issues such as the use of Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified wood (“2 X 4 Landscape”) and formaldehyde-free particleboard (“Blue Lake Pass”). Thus, Lin’s sculptures are more akin to generalized yet highly refined icons, billboards, or signifiers of these environmental issues or ideas.
Lin’s lack of specific visual description or geographical reference implies a reductive minimalist aesthetic, as in the serial arrangement of the box-like “Blue Lake Pass,” which recalls Donald Judd’s grid of wooden boxes on permanent view at Dia: Beacon, “Untitled” (1976). This minimalist sensibility is even more apparent in much of Lin’s public art and memorials, which can approach Richard Serra’s forbidding austerity. Coincidentally, her outdoor sculpture “Wavefield” at Storm King rests near Serra’s “Schunnemunk Fork” (1990-91), whose triangular slice recalls the shape of Lin’s “Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.” Kirk Varnadoe once said that Maya Lin’s memorial is “indebted to the aesthetic of minimalist sculpture” because of its “vocabulary of ambiguity.” This ambiguity also echoes a sense of ambivalence, indicating changes in cultural perceptions of the public monument of which Lin’s memorial was at the forefront. James Young, in his book At Memory’s Edge, describes these changes as “a metamorphosis of the monument from the heroic, self-aggrandizing figurative icons of the late nineteenth century celebrating national ideals and triumphs to the anti-heroic, often ironic, and self-effacing conceptual installations.”
This sense of universality, that a memorial is to gather the concerns of many people, not just one, is often distilled in the language of minimalist sculpture and the idea of the void signifying absence, loss or a lack. Interestingly, Serra also has done sculptures that serve as memorials, such as “Gravity” (1993) in the U.S. Holocaust Museum. But Lin’s representational hook for the otherwise minimalist veterans memorial was the etching of the names onto the surface. This text carried the content, purpose, and sheer impact of the memorial—the cumulative force of 58,000 names of those who died. Conversely, these new works have been emptied of content and detail. While text may be more appropriate in the public arena and not in a gallery context, in this instance, Lin’s minimalism seems to work against her environmentalist concerns.
How much, then, does the content in Lin’s work rely on context? Like much minimalist sculpture, the space in which it is placed largely determines how its forms are read. Inside the gallery, the works in Three Ways of Looking at the Earth appear conflated with a sleek yet semantically ineffectual product design sensibility, while outdoor site-specific works, such as “Wavefield,” appear more potent in their natural element. This overly designed look is especially true of “Blue Lake Pass,” whose formaldehyde-free particleboard construction, although more environmentally conscious, recalls Ikea’s constituent material of planned obsolescence.
“Wavefield” evokes the earthworks of Robert Smithson, whose earthworks and writings have been cited by Lin as a major influence and inspiration. Smithson encouraged artists to leave the isolating economic and social structures of museums and galleries in order to develop direct relationships to specific sites. Lin’s process in “Wavefield” is especially attuned to the particulars of the place in a way that her gallery work is not.
Fashioned out of a gravel pit that once supplied material for the nearby Thruway, the seven parallel rows of rolling peaks, landscaped with slow-growing wild grasses, were created with minimal intervention. Permission was secured from New York State’s Environmental Conservation Department to reclaim the site, and Lin worked with a landscape architect to develop natural drainage. Her collaborators also included a local landscaper and a landscape restoration expert who advised which native grasses would require minimal maintenance yet provide maximum structure for the topsoil. In an additional gesture, Lin planted 270 young trees between “Wavefield” and the Thruway, a number estimated to offset the amount of fuel and energy (265 tons of CO2) required to create the piece.
In the majority of his writings, Smithson was more preoccupied with the earth’s relationship to science fiction, cinema, geological history, and art historical institutions than the environment’s wellbeing. His works were neither intrinsically didactic nor activist. However, one unpublished piece, written a year before his untimely death, suggests a new environmental activist direction, proposing the reclamation of a strip mine as a site for an earthwork that would coincide with an art education conference at Ohio State University. Smithson argued that, “Art can become a physical resource that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist…companies must become aware of art and nature, or else they will leave pollution and ruin in their wake.”
In her public art, Lin has explored the relationship between artist and industrialist, but has it proven more complicated and entangled than what Smithson envisioned? One can only imagine the vested interests that have donated money, and how this money can shape and often ultimately control large-scaled public works. After all, while Lin’s “Wavefield” was funded through the private institution of Storm King and its private benefactors, many of her public artworks, such as the Confluence Project in Vancouver, Washington, culled its $27 million dollars from federal, state, and private monies. These political minefields, however, are probably familiar navigations for Lin, who serves on the Board of Trustees of the National Resources Defense Council and is a former member of the Energy Foundation.
Although artist-consultant isn’t quite the right word to describe Lin’s relationship with corporations and the environment, this trajectory of Smithson’s environmental concerns obviously has a bearing on Lin’s site-specific earthworks. One major distinction is in approach, however, which is evident in Smithson and Lin’s extremely diverging conceptions of beauty and the earth. Smithson had an entropic view, at one point paraphrasing the Heraclitus fragment, “The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion.” Lin’s visual aesthetic is more informed by the “beauty of the natural world” as reflected in her largely sleek and refined minimalist formats.
Environmentalism has steadily become a part of the mainstream and popular culture since the mid-1970s. It has become an industry in itself, as Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which describes how organic food alternatives have given us the opportunity to experience lengthy, often embellished narratives about the travels of produce and poultry from farms to our tables. Memorials could have been just as viable an industry for Maya Lin, but instead she has largely pursued a minimalist vision aspiring to an environmental ethos that paradoxically depends on the ambiguous relationship of form and context.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.