Maya Lin's Newest Work Is a 'Last Memorial' to the Vanishing Natural World

"I am going to try to wake you up to things that are missing that you are not even aware are disappearing."

It may be hard to believe now, but the long, low black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall was radical when it was selected in 1981as the result of an open competition. The design was the antithesis of the upward-thrusting monuments to war dead that had prevailed for centuries. The fact that it was designed by a 21-year-old woman of Asian ancestry, Yale undergraduate Maya Lin, attracted even more controversy.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Image courtesy of Meutia Chaerani - Indradi Soemardjan/Wikimedia Commons

Her design was referred to as "a black trench that scars the Mall" and "a degrading ditch." The New Republic said the way the memorial listed the names of the dead "makes them individual deaths, not deaths in a cause; they might as well have been traffic accidents." Billionaire and presidential candidate Ross Perot was widely reported to have called her an "egg roll" during the prolonged controversy that preceded the memorial’s dedication in 1982. As part of a compromise, a more conventional statue, "The Three Soldiers" was added to the site in 1984. (You can find a full and enlightening account of the controversy at Art 21.)

A generation later, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now a beloved and accepted icon in the nation’s capital. Lin, now 53, has proved herself as one of the most prolific and respected architectural designers and artists of her generation. And she is still trying to find ways to use her work as a vehicle for creative, productive remembrance of things we have lost.

In recent years, she’s been working on a project that she calls her “last memorial.” It is not a single piece of stone in a single place, but instead a website, What Is Missing?, and a series of works that relate to the questions raised on that site. It is memorializing nothing less than life on the planet Earth, “species and places that have gone extinct or will most likely disappear within our lifetime."

From the website’s explanation:

A memorial or monument is known as a single stationary object.

Imagine a memorial that would exist not as a fixed static monument, but as a work that would allow us to rethink the idea of a memorial. Imagine a work that could exist in several mediums and in multiple places simultaneously.

The elegantly designed interactive site, which was launched last year and is constantly being updated, allows visitors to add their own accounts of disappearances they have observed. By clicking on hundreds of dots that Lin calls "wormholes," you can find chronicles of loss in the natural world. You can read about the vanished prairie grasses beloved by Willa Cather, or see a picture of the orchid Platanthera leucophaea, which once proliferated across what is now Indiana, but hasn’t been seen for 50 years. You can see a video of the imperiled Javan rhinoceros, or learn about the sardines that once were sold in the bazaars of the southern Arabian coast.

The artist is not just building her memorial in virtual space. Some of Lin’s most recent physical work is currently on display at the Pace Gallery in New York, and it deals directly with the shifting coastline of New York in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and the accelerating effects of climate change. The show, called “Here and There,” is up through June 22.

Pin River -- Sandy, 2013, Maya Lin. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery

As always, Lin’s creations have a cool and unassuming beauty that reveals deeper meaning on examination. "Crossing Midtown," made of steel pins, shows the course of the creeks that once crisscrossed Manhattan and were obliterated by the aspiring city. "Pin River Sandy” uses pins the mark the places flooded by the storm all along the coastline of New York and New Jersey. “Silver Hudson" is a delicate and lovely trail of recycled silver that pools into shapes that, to a New Yorker, seem vaguely familiar and yet not quite right. A closer look reveals that those shapes map the tidal waters that surround our city: Long Island Sound, Jamaica Bay, New York Harbor. The island of Manhattan is a tiny negative space in this view of the city. We become aware, slowly, how the water overwhelms the land.

Silver Hudson, 2011, Maya Lin. Image courtesy of Pace Gallery

The ongoing environmental memorial that Lin is creating with her website and her sculptures is meant to inspire a different kind of reaction than the war memorial that made her name more than 30 years ago. These are monuments to losses that we may not even realize we have sustained.

"I am going to try to wake you up to things that are missing that you are not even aware are disappearing," she said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “[B]ecause if we can get you to think about something — you know, how can we protect it if we don’t even see it?”

In its way, “What Is Missing” is as radical as that long, low wall in the ground was all those years ago.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.