Essay

Why Has Maya Lin Retreated From the Battlefield of Ideas?

Architect Maya talking about the merger of art, architecture, landscape and history in some of her most recent projects before a full house at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Architect Maya talking about the merger of art, architecture, landscape and history in some of her most recent projects before a full house at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Lois Raimondo - Lois Raimondo/TWP)

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so seductive, and now so much a part of the Washington landscape, that it's hard not to think of her as a local hero. A quarter of a century ago, she fought the good fight, arguing for a less-is-more monument design, proving herself, fresh out college, a formidable force against the crass manipulations and demagoguery that so often attend the design and use of public space in the Federal City.

She endured a lot of shabby treatment in the process, from people who wanted to scuttle her design because it lacked bombast, and from others who simply couldn't take seriously the ideas and vision of a woman, an Asian American, a young person, a Washington outsider. The battle she began in 1981 -- to build her simple, dignified stone wedge -- was one of the opening battles of the culture wars that would define public life in this country over the next two decades. Lin emerged both a hero, because she won, and a martyr, because she endured a lot of grief. She struggled and suffered for her art, and Washington is a better place for it.

She doesn't remember her Washington chapter fondly. Nonetheless, many Washingtonians think of her fondly, as a quiet force for aesthetic improvement in a city of hot air. You approach your own reflection in the shining black granite and think not just about the soldiers who died in Vietnam, but about the mind that conceived such a powerful form of remembrance. And so they were turning them away at the door Wednesday, when Lin, now 47, delivered a lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Alas, it was very easy to fall out of love with that imaginary Lin -- the mascot of a better Washington -- as she spoke. And when it was all done, when she had ducked the interesting questions (What do you think of the World War II Memorial?) and declared herself uninterested in talking about monuments, and a reluctant architect who isn't looking for commissions, and tried to focus attention on her low-key environmental art, a subtle shift took place in the meaning of the project that made her famous. She has sealed it off, and declines to be drawn into the subject. The Vietnam Memorial used to be the First Great Work of Maya Lin. But that Lin is gone, transformed into Lin the Artist, who, despite having served on the panel that chose a design for the memorial at the World Trade Center site, wants to project an image of disengagement from the huge civic issues she raised. When she speaks as an artist, she's so determined to be out of the fight that it's not clear she has any fight left in her.

Colleen Chartier
Maya Lin's "2 x 4 Landscape."(Colleen Chartier)
Now, she makes bumps in the earth and little Zen-like paths in public gardens; she creates fantasy landscapes out of upended 2-by-4s and carves the pages of old atlases into intriguing shapes that resemble small-scale topographic maps overlaid on continents. She has used broken glass to create sculpture and fashioned a map of the ocean floor out of aluminum tubes. She does noble work, some of which is very appealing in a calm, centered way, but she seems determined to be irrelevant.

After the dark days of the battle over the Vietnam project, Lin jumped straight from the frying pan into the granola. She talks an endless stream of sustainability, solar power, Native American blessings, environmentalism, endangered animals and wetlands. Worthy subjects -- yet she claims that she really doesn't think of herself as a political artist. That level of self-delusion is astonishing, and it raises fascinating questions about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which she also claimed was apolitical. Of course her current interests are political -- just try selling "Kumbaya" environmentalism to Congress these days. One is left wondering whether Lin lives in a such a cocoon that she can't even recognize what is controversial and what isn't.

Worse, to pretend that your ideas (or rather, causes) aren't political is to pretend that they don't have powerful opponents. But if you pretend that, how can you fight for what you believe? And if you won't fight for your cause, what good is it, anyway? As Lin described her current projects, one sensed that this environmentalism was a very private, subjective thing, more of a personal aesthetic, a happy place, than a real engagement with environmental issues.

Lin has characterized her recent work as an ongoing exploration of boundaries, including the one between Eastern and Western aesthetics, reflecting her own background as an Chinese American. Critics have admired the contemplation in her art, its quiet, balance and understatement. A catalogue for a recent exhibition in Washington state shows Lin's interest in mapping and landscape, in creating pictures of places that can't be seen (because they're underwater, or too big to be comprehended in a single view, or altogether imaginary). She talks of this work as a breakthrough.

Perhaps it's a breakthrough, but it's still intimately connected with what she did on the Mall, which was a dark gash in a gentle landscape, filled with the names of the fallen. She is still inscribing words on her work, just as she did at the Vietnam memorial. She is still fascinated with gentle landscapes, just as she was at the Vietnam memorial. She still works in a minimalist fashion, just as she did at the Vietnam memorial. But now it's "art" (which she is happy to talk about) and somehow disconnected from the memorial (a subject she airily refuses to broach).

The ultimate arrogance of artists is the belief that they control the meaning of their work, the shape of their career, the pattern of their own biographical narrative -- and their importance in the larger history of art. Composers dismiss their juvenilia from consideration. Novelists decide they're poets, and churn out mediocre verse. Yet very few artists ever exercise any ultimate power over how they're evaluated by posterity. Lin's artistic work will never have the same power to reshape the way we think about art that her monument did to the way we think about memorials. So why minimize the connection between the two?

Lin has always projected the sense that she is a political naif, an innocent who managed to survive the furnace of Washington power plays and manipulation. And then, weary of the battle, she moved on to make art. Everyone has that right, and there's a fine old tradition of American artists (think of J.D. Salinger) taking to their hermit places.

But one has to question whether that's really what Lin is doing. Four years ago, when an African American minister who graduated from Yale Divinity School tried to get elected to the university's governing body, the Yale elite went ballistic -- and ran Maya Lin against him in an effort to be sure no "outsider" without official benediction crashed the gate. Lin's participation in that charade left a lot of people wondering if she was just naive, or had been fully drafted into the Establishment. She followed the usual protocol and refused to campaign for the job -- or is she above such tawdry things? -- but the episode did her little credit and Yale none at all.

When asked by an audience member, after the talk Wednesday at the Smithsonian, what she thought of Friedrich St. Florian's World War II Memorial on the Mall, she laughed and blew off the question, refusing to be drawn into the debate. And yet recently she advised on the choice of an architect for the new (and entirely unnecessary) Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center. So clearly, she does consider those kinds of questions -- at least when they impinge on her own work.

That was the saddest moment of the evening. Even when it is done with a smile, it is rude and uncharitable to dismiss honest questions asked in a public forum. Of course she has an opinion on Florian's exercise in neo-fascist design. And no, it's not particularly dangerous or controversial to think ill of a monument that essentially undoes everything for which Lin supposedly once stood. But what was that, again? What are Lin's values, beyond boilerplate lefty environmentalism?

It seems, today, she stands for the artist's right to retreat into a faraway place, where she can avoid old realities and fashion new, private ones and slowly, but inevitably, fade from public significance. People who love her memorial will no doubt continue to look to her for some kind of moral wisdom and guidance; perhaps it would be best not to disappoint them with news that Lin isn't in the business of offering any such thing. And while Lin may now be in a better place -- where she can make art without a fight or controversy and with the many blessings of a very successful professional -- we still have her monument, which, fortunately, will always speak for itself.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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