22 July 2006

Art: Maya Lin's "Systematic Landscapes"

Maya Lin has a new show -- her first in years -- at the Henry Gallery on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. I went to check it out yesterday while in that town for a meeting. Lin is one of the most enigmatic artists working today and one whose work continually inspires me.

Her work, whether the iconic Vietnam Vets Memorial in DC or her landscape "Wave Field" in front of the aerospace engineering school at the University of Michigan, evokes complex emotional and intellectual responses.

Her new show, "Systematic Landscapes," juxtaposes land- and waterscape forms with out-of-context materials often distorting size and dislocating connections. The forms are familiar, yet strange at the same time. The landscapes appear more fragile in this context.

An architectural-scale wire sculpture, Water Line, is suspended or rather draped over a gallery room. You walk over, under, around, and within what is really a topographic rendering of the underwater landscape that forms an island off the coast of Antarctica.

In Blue Lake Pass, a mountain pass is rendered in giant, multi-layered particle board cut in such a way to reveal topographic relief contours. What in nature would be a solid mass is further dissected: the mountain has been cut into cubes, separated enough to allow viewers to pass through as in a maze. It is as if the fissures and crevasses of the mountain broke apart dramatically and landed on the gallery floor.

Finally, Lin builds an imagined landscape out of 2x4s filling one room with what at first glance appears to be an oversized pile of construction debris or a tremendous spill of child's blocks. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that Lin is asking us to again rethink what is natural in form.

The hill is manufactured as much as is the material from which it is built. In other words, it is constructed in the true nature of its materials. You want to reach out and touch it, interact with the pile, build your own. (I was a day late for the opportunity to walk on the installation; the next one is 10 August from 5-7 PM, I'm sorry to have missed that!)

As impressive and stimulating as the large pieces are, the smaller works are more dislocating. Atlases with precise, reverse topographic cuts down into their pages create a new sort of geography, contour lines drilling down through pages. One such cut resembles a pool, perhaps a volcanic lake; another appears to be the outline of Antarctica (I'm trying to recall what was the base map on the top page...); still another conjures a meteor crater.

Lin is exploring how form indicates geography, how topology sends indicators to us everyday. And, as if to remind us how precarious our world is, the replicas of inland saltwater seas -- Caspian, Black, and Red -- made of sculptured layers of beech plywood, teeter on their lowest points.

The flow of the Columbia River from its headwaters to the Pacific is reproduced in large scale upon one wall. From a distance, it resembles flowing mercury. Up close, however, you realize the sculpture is made entirely of 15,000 metal straight pins pushed into the wall with unnerving precision.

The Columbia River has been much on Maya Lin's mind of late. Included in the show are her plans, models, and sketches for the Confluence Project, a series of designed stations at the points where its infamous tributaries meet up with the River.

In Lin's view of the world, form and landscape not only inspire replication or reproduction, but challenge us to see the fragile in the familiar. Ultimately, Lin's message is one of hope: hope that we'll change the way we live in the world by looking at our Earth in new ways.

For more on the show at the Henry, which runs through 3 September 2006: henry

A review of the show from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
p-i review

and from the vroom journal blog: vroom

and the short video Steven Michael Vroom made at the press opening: video clip

and the Seattle Times review: seattle times

and from the electric goddess blog: electric goddess

For more on Maya Lin's Confluence Project: confluence

The Maya Lin art:21 pages from PBS: art:21

Maya Lin's "Earth Day Message of Hope" from The Nature Conservancy's web site: maya's message of hope

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