Maya Lin Brings The Outside In

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

There's a surprise in store at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

You'd think that something called "Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes" -- not just landscapes, for crying out loud, but systematic ones -- would be all about computer mapping, right? The whole thing sounds about as sexy as Google Earth. Yet despite the fact that the wall labels do tend to go on about such geologic phenomena as hills, valleys, rivers, islands and lakes, what the show draws the most attention to is not any particular body of water or any particular body of land . . . but your own body.

Maybe not right off the bat.

The sculpture that greets visitors at the door to the exhibition of recent work by the artist-architect best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is, in fact, a kind of map. It's a wall-size rendering of the Potomac River, made from tens of thousands of straight pins. (Several students from the Corcoran College of Art and Design were drafted for the meticulous task of sticking them into the wall.) "Pin River -- Potomac" is a visually impressive feat and, along with a cast-silver silhouette of the Chesapeake Bay that resembles a giant, shiny tuber, a fitting reminder of Lin's indelible association with Washington. But it isn't especially corporeal. At least not at first glance.

For that, you'll need to enter the room behind it. There, you'll find the first of three massive, room-size installations that, in the words of chief curator Philip Brookman, will probably bowl you over.

That description is dead right, too. Lin's big pieces have a physical presence that is, quite literally, destabilizing. You'll want to touch them, too, though more than a dozen signs warn you not to. But like her famous D.C. memorial, they can get under your skin in ways that are far more subtle.

We'll tell you how. Our tour of "Landscapes" begins with one that is both lumbering -- in every sense of the word -- and sensuous.

'2x4 Landscape'

"How could I bring a hill inside?"

During a walk-through of the show, the artist says that's the question she started from with "2x4 Landscape." Her answer? By building one, out of more than 50,000 pieces of two-by-four lumber. The wood arrived at the Corcoran on two trucks.

At its highest point, the hill is 10 feet tall, tapering to a carpet of lumber only a few inches thick. You can walk around it on three sides on a path that's just about as wide as a sidewalk. It looks like -- no, it is -- a real hill.

But it also looks a little like the hip of a woman, reclining with her back against the wall, her pelvis swelling gently up and then down in a wave of wooden flesh. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, maybe, after she ate the cake that made her larger. Its sheer size makes the room feel cramped, tight. That's understandable, Lin says. She had to shave about two feet off the front, and six off the back, just to fit the piece (originally designed for a larger space) into the Corcoran's 30-by-64-foot gallery.

You'll feel the tightness, too. With so little space to maneuver around it, you may find your own shoulders hunching up, stiffening, as you maneuver around it. If the sculpture feels out of place, like a giant in a box, then so do you.

Call it a sense of dislocation. Something doesn't belong here. But is it the hill, or the human being?

Keep your ears open: The museum hopes to announce an opportunity for visitors to walk on "2x4 Landscape," under controlled conditions and with special footwear.

'Blue Lake Pass'

Like "2x4 Landscape," "Blue Lake Pass" brings the great outdoors indoors. Taking its name from a mountainous area near the artist's Colorado summer home, it's a topographical rendering (a 3-D scale model, really) of Mother Nature's picturesque peaks and valleys.

Made of pieces of particleboard that have been glued together, it looks like a rectangular sculpture of the Earth's crust that has been carved, like a sheet cake, into 20 chunks, each 3 feet long by 3 feet wide. There are pathways between them so that you can walk among the pieces of this exploded landscape. You can stand inside it and explore it from within.

Tread carefully, though. The passages are narrow: only 2 1/2 feet wide. That's barely big enough for a man's size medium to negotiate without turning sideways. If you wear an XXL T-shirt, good luck. It's claustrophobic.

When Lin was still playing with the work's dimensions, those passageways were, like the blocks of wood themselves, three feet wide. That, Lin says, turned out to be way too big. "You couldn't feel," she says, before pausing to search for just the right word, "it."

You can feel it now, that's for sure. But again, what is that thing you feel? Is it the Colorado land? The artificial landscape based on it? The room itself? Or is it, as if for the first time, the space each of us takes up in the universe?

'Pin River -- Potomac'

"Systematic Landscapes" may be all about the material world (the stuff we see, and marvel at, with our eyes), but it gets at something far less visible.

Take "Pin River -- Potomac." As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, you can't step into the same river twice. Its waters keep flowing onward, and that state of flux keeps it from ever being pinned down.

Which may be precisely Lin's point.

But "Pin River" calls to mind something else, too. Something that, again, has as much to do with flesh-and-blood bodies as with bodies of water. Take another look at those pins. Don't they, maybe just a little bit, remind you of acupuncture needles? Perhaps the "rivers" Lin wants us to think about aren't the Potomac and its tributaries at all, but the energy meridians that, according to Chinese medicine, course through us all.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company