Architect and artist Maya Lin has developed a large body of work relating to landscapes — large both in number and scale. I visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, to see her indoor pieces. (The show runs through July 12.) Many readers will recognize Lin as the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. However, that was decades ago, and she does not want to known solely by that one iconic monument. In an interview in the Washington Post, she described her delight when a visitor asked about her newer pieces without mentioning the iconic monument.
Walking up the marble steps to the galleries, the first installation on view was “Pin River – Potomac.” It is composed of hundreds of mundane metal-headed pins pushed into the wall, maybe 10 x 10 feet in extent. It looks very accurate to my cartographer’s eye, with the two branches of the river starting as thin lines in the west, merging in West Virginia and widening as it nears the Chesapeake. It is (or should be) recognizable to anyone familiar with the geography of this region (I live in Virginia), but to others it may be more abstract. For example, the catalog/book of Lin’s landscape body of work includes a similar push pin map of the Columbia River (shown here), long and thin and not at all recognizable to me. Outside of any other cartographic context, it becomes simply a sort of meandering, sketched line. The shadows of all those pins adds interest.
The floor of the first room was almost entirely filled with over 54,000 sections of wooden 2×4 blocks at various heights, forming a hill or ocean swell (or both), named “2×4 Landscape”. I felt as though I were looking from a great height over a vast ancient city of small earthen buildings packed together, seeing only the roofs. The block heights vary from a few inches to perhaps 10 feet, too high to see the top surface. They are laid in a grid, as if on top of graph paper, but small variations suggest the hand(s) of people who laid down all those blocks; the human element is implied by imperfection. Neighboring blocks are at slightly different heights, and variations in color of the wood also are a delight to the eye. Lin wished that the Corcoran would allow visitors to walk up the hill — wouldn’t that be fun! However, apparently the Corcoran thought otherwise.
The only color in the otherwise monochromatic exhibition was a set of atlases, displayed open, where Lin had meticulously cut out contoured sections through a dozen or so successive pages, resulting in cratered voids. The visible parts of the pages were like sedimentary layers of rocks. One atlas had index pages cut away, teasing the eye with black-and-white patterns from the bits of visible place name indices.
“Fractured Landscapes” were a series of very large rubbings, sepia-toned pastel on paper. A pane of plate glass was cracked (I can imagine it being dropped and left flat on a floor), and Lin then laid paper over certain sections to make the rubbings. The patterns are highly suggestive of river systems. What a clever way to find complex natural lines in a simple manufactured material.
Similarly, “Plaster Relief Landscapes” used the medium of plaster on one white wall of a hallway. Lin sculpted four types of landscape patterns in the plaster, smoothing the edges of each rectangular area nearly seamlessly into the wall. There were no boundaries. To me, they were suggestive of sand dunes, irregular hills, a canyon, and islands in a braided river.
When in a boat, do you ever wonder about what is below the water surface? The “Bodies of Water” series uses beautiful Baltic birch plywood to show us the hidden volumes of the Caspian, Black and Red seas (see image at top). Think of the land holding the water being used as a mold, and these sculptures are what are formed in a sort of lost-wax process. The top layer of plywood corresponds to the surface of the sea, and each layer beneath conforms to the detailed curves of the bathysphere. They look a bit like aircraft carriers, precariously balanced on pedestals. The surface is a light tan, showing the grain of the wood, similar to ripples or contours; the layers below show the gorgeous dark amber variations of the plywood edges. I wished that they had been displayed bottoms-up, accenting the unknown parts of the seas, making it easier to see the depths but abstracting them more.
One of the most satisfying sculptures was “Water Line”, completely filling a room with a wide grid of black wire, with various points touching the floor or the ceiling. The viewer must walk underneath it. It maps the area around Bouvet Island, a very isolated spot in the South Atlantic. The wires are much like drawn lines, with small bumps and irregularities showing the hand of the artist. Lin seems to be playing with how we normally read maps, making you look up towards a surface and read a map larger than yourself — or be inside the map.
Outside of that room were smaller woven wire sculptures, “wire landscapes”, a few feet across, showing one hilly feature each. After the majesty of “Water Line” these seemed more like sketches.
“Blue Lake Pass” fills the final room. Lin invites the viewer to literally walk in her scaled-down Rocky Mountain landscape. The installation is split into 20 sections (laid out 4 x 5) with enough space for a person to walk between (but not wheelchairs, I noticed). The heights ranged from 6 inches to perhaps 5 1/2 feet — a very human scale, though the viewer cannot see the entire surface from any one point. Instead of horizontal layers of wood like “Bodies of Water”, “Blue Lake Pass” is composed of vertical layers of plywood, each layer individually contoured. A multitude of lines become three-dimensional. It brought to my mind a lush surface of brushed corduroy, so tempting to touch. I wanted to be able to vary the lighting, shine a flashlight across the hills, play with the shadows; walking amongst the sections changes the shadows somewhat as various surfaces of the plywood are revealed or hidden. Like a feminine personification of an Earth goddess, it is all naked, lush curves.
I am envious of being able to work so big.
For many of these installations, Lin collaborated closely with scientists; truly they are art and science combined. She has found beauty in geography, and shows us the complexity of the landscape in simple monochromatic lines, depicts our fragile world in strong materials.
Doubtless, many assistants were needed to install the largest pieces, if not use the tools to make them. However, this exhibition shows one artist’s consistent vision. The Corcoran’s website has a short video, showing two of the pieces being installed and indicating the vast room-filling scale.
Visit Maya Lin’s website to see more of her indoor and even larger outdoor installations.