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Public Places, Private Emotions

Maya Lin's Topologies

Although the Vietnam Veterans Memorial attracts more visitors than any other site in Washington, D.C., and is perhaps the single most effective war memorial in the country, its design narrowly missed the scrap heap of history. The saga has been told many times over, but it still serves as a worthy introduction to one of the most fascinating figures in the field of design today, Maya Ying Lin. As a nerdy, faculty-brat child of Chinese immigrants, Lin reshaped the notion of what a memorial can be. She was a mere undergraduate when, in 1981, a panel of architecture experts unanimously chose her memorial design, done for an architecture class at Yale, from among 1,421 submissions. No one thought they had made an easy choice, especially given the complicated emotions surrounding the war. Yet the vets who headed the memorial fund were convinced that Lin's understated, polished black wall was special enough to be worth defending.

Lin's design is antimonumental. Neither proud nor vainglorious, it does nothing to reinforce our patriotism. It has few elements, but those who opposed the design took issue with every one: the color of the stone should be white, they said; the monument should be above ground rather than set into the earth; the names should be alphabetical rather than chronological; and (in what is perhaps the most hilarious manifestation of the male-vs.-female subtext of this struggle) a 50-foot flagpole should be mounted at the apex of the wall's wide, loping angle. The memorial fund's organizers wanted to heal the still raw wound the Vietnam War had left on the nation, yet the controversy that erupted around Lin's design seemed largely a carryover of that frustration and mistrust. Just as antiwar demonstrators were unable to separate the men who served their country from the faulty politics of intervention in Vietnam, so those who opposed Lin's design seemed unable to distinguish it from the chilly reception they had received upon their return home. One veteran called the wall "the most insulting and demeaning memorial Š possible."

Although the wall's design was accepted by many veterans organizations, a small, well-connected and vocal group managed to turn its own opposition into a media circus that cast Lin, ironically, as the veterans' opponent. Ross Perot, who had originally given seed money for the memorial, tried to sabotage the jury's decision. Tom Wolfe called the design "a tribute to Jane Fonda," and Pat Buchanan drove an attack against the contest judges, pegging them as antiwar demonstrators and communists. Throughout the fight, and even in the face of racial insults, Lin calmly defended her design. "It is not a memorial to politics or war or controversy," the 22-year-old insisted, "but to all those men and women who served."

Detail from Maya Lin's Untitled (Topographic Landscape).
Detail from Maya Lin's Untitled (Topographic Landscape).

In order to get the memorial built, a compromise was eventually reached: A statue of three soldiers and a flagpole would be erected near the wall. (The sculptor's fee was many times what Lin was paid.) But the moment the wall opened in 1982, all criticism of Lin's design simply stopped, silenced by the emotional outpouring of visitors to the memorial. It was an unequivocal success. Today, the truckloads of photos and other memorabilia left at the wall each year are collected and stored in off-site warehouses.

One problem critics such as Wolfe had with the wall was that it seemed to express that cold, modern aesthetic that so many people found elitist or perplexing. But unlike Richard Serra's 1980 Tilted Arc and Carl Andre's 1981 Stone Field Sculpture, two tax-funded public artworks infamously foisted upon unwelcoming publics, the wall was embraced by visitors. Critics have suggested that Eastern tenets of simplicity and humility, not Western minimalism, guided Lin's design, and undeniably Lin's harmonious work possesses many of those qualities — serenity, horizontality, femininity — that are considered Eastern. Yet, by her own admission, she was tremendously influenced by Serra and earthwork artists such as Robert Smithson. She simply managed to bend modernism into the service of creating a space that invited the addition of human feelings.

"Her ability to make public space the condition of an intense and empowering experience of privacy is almost miraculous" is the way critic Michael Brenson so aptly puts it in the catalog of "Topologies," the Lin exhibit that's currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum.

After the Vietnam memorial was complete, Lin returned to school to earn her master's degree in architecture. But she was soon called upon to create other commemorative designs: the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Women's Table, honoring undergraduate women at Yale, before she gave up the memorial business for other projects. While Lin considers herself (and, indeed, is) American, she credits much of her aesthetic to her Eastern roots, approaching design in a manner that's perhaps more Japanese than anything else (she even did a sort of "rock garden" of raked broken glass at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio). Yet unlike other architects and artists of her stature, Lin has confined her activities to this country. Her bio lists no projects or exhibits elsewhere, and in articles about her I found nothing that explained why. Lin has chosen the United States — or we've chosen her. Either is gratifying, given the unlikelihood of an Asian-American woman being called upon to make a permanent statement on subjects so central to our national identity.

When Lin talks about her work, she often talks about what she has observed: a group of schoolchildren who were hushed into silence at the Vietnam memorial, or the circle of the relatives of civil rights martyrs that gathered around the circular stone tablet of her Alabama memorial at the opening ceremony and trailed their fingers in the water coursing over it. Is it the subject matter or Lin's tranquil creations that engender such responses? Certainly the planned memorial for those who died in the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995, which features one empty chair for each victim, with smaller chairs for the children, seems heavy-handed and literal in comparison to Lin's designs.

Lin is something of a conundrum: a very serious, very intellectual and very private woman who takes great satisfaction from the emotional power of her very public work. Without ever betraying much of herself, she seems to understand how catharsis works and, even better, how to make it work. I say Maya Lin for president.

One of Lin's most playful designs is The Wave Field, a grassy quad outside the aerospace building at the University of Michigan that Lin fashioned into hummocky waves that mimic the ocean surface. A subtle nod to fluid dynamics, as well as to the desert (where the aerospace student to whom the field is dedicated crashed and died), the best thing about The Wave Field is the fact that students hang out there, using the five-foot waves as Barcaloungers. What's most powerful about Lin's work is her ability to create a site-specific design that people respond to and that, unfortunately, is impossible to put in a museum.

Lin, however, considers herself something between an architect and an artist, and "Topologies," which originated at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is supposed to show off her artist side. It does a fine job: The pieces are elegant and uncrowded, from an untitled topographic landscape that's essentially a giant model built of particle board, to a huge Avalanche of glittery broken glass piled high in a corner. But while Lin's artist side is every bit as refined as one might expect, and her drawings and prints inspire a high degree of collector's envy, they are not nearly as special as her works in the world.

Lin is the kind of person who will spend all day looking at the curve of the horizon, or staring at the ocean, trying to tell where one wave begins and another ends. Her sculpture bears the same quality of attention. Much like Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, those two British artists who take a lot of walks and write little poems about them, Lin has the sort of simple connection to the earth that the CAM seems to appreciate in contemporary artists. Unlike them, her connection translates more naturally to her viewer through her works, primarily because she uses physical things instead of language to make her point. Her materials — glass, wood, beeswax — also connect her to artists such as Tony Cragg and Meg Webster (both, along with Long, shown in recent years at the CAM), who are into metal, coal, salt and sand.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this kind of work — respectable is the word that comes to mind. Sure, the more hackneyed pieces, such as Lin's beeswax disks that are meant to emulate the moon's waning, seem positively lumpen. But on the other hand, her exquisite furniture designs for Knoll are there for the sitting (and one can, while sitting, view the entertaining episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood where he goes with Lin to see the clock she designed for Penn Station. "I've always liked escalators!" he says perkily on the way down). While Lin's personal restraint seems absolutely correct in her outdoor work, in the museum it left me cold. Even the supposedly self-contained pieces, such as the giant pebbles fashioned from blown glass in Rock Field, seemed more like studies for later projects, or the byproducts of finished ones. They are keys to Lin's mysterious ability to generate simple yet alluring sites.

Such keys are important when you're talking about someone as masterful as Lin, whose public projects certainly make you want to know more. If anything, this exhibit is a perfect opportunity to consider the strategies of someone who has managed something few Americans have: public art that works in the highest sense. Foreign countries are often better than we are at appreciating American genius, but surprisingly Maya Lin is a talent that we ourselves have embraced. Still, Lin has gone her own way. Uninterested in becoming our national mourner, she has focused on things that make history seem smaller — water, earth and stone — yet she has continued to make a place for us among them.

"Topologies" will be on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose Boulevard. (713) 284-8250, through September 12.

On Thursday, August 7 at 7 p.m., Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision will be screened at the museum.

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