Maya Ying Lin, the 22-year-old Yale architecture student who has remained largely silent while her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was attacked, debated and amended, has now characterized the changes as distracting and completely wrong in tone.
"This farce has gone on too long . . . I have to clear my own conscience," says Lin, who claims that she was not consulted on or informed of the changes.
"Past a certain point," she says, "it's not worth compromising. It becomes nothing--even if it's a 250-foot-long nothing."
Lin's design--two highly polished black granite walls in a wide V, inscribed with the names of Americans dead and missing in Vietnam--was chosen over approximately 1,400 other competition entries last year. Hailed by some for its simplicity and understatement, it has also been attacked as unheroic and a "degrading ditch." Interior Secretary James Watt refused to permit ground-breaking at Constitution Gardens unless the design was modified. And the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the driving force behind the memorial concept, agreed to place a larger-than-life-size sculpture of soldiers directly in front of those walls, and an American flag above them. The sculpture is to be designed by Washingtonian Frederick Hart, who also entered the original competition. Lin speaks contemptuously of Hart and accuses him of "drawing mustaches on other people's portraits."
These new elements ("changes--they're not additions; I can't call them additions") will completely affect the way Lin's work is viewed, she fears. "It's crucial visually what you come across first . . . I don't want it to appear they're going to shoot you when you start walking down toward the walls . . ." The sculpture is going to "make one feel watched. That's not a feeling I want."
And the single flag in a two-acre site? "It's going to look pretty much like a golf green. The whole point of the V shape was to point at the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial . . . They're much stronger visually than any flag could be."
Lin says she has been almost totally excluded as the changes in her design have been hashed out. "They are keeping me uninformed . . . in an isolation chamber," she says of fund officials. "I've been begging for bones of information."
Even the central compromise was kept from her, she says, discovered only because she was on hand in New York this spring when fund president Jan Scruggs disclosed on a television show that the design was being changed.
"That was the first I heard of it. It really hurts. We were staying in the same hotel. They could have had the guts to tell me in advance what was happening . . . I went up to Jan after the show and said, 'Jan, what changes?' So he said, 'There's gonna be a flag.' He was really hemming and hawing. I said, 'What else?' and he said, 'There's gonna be a little statue somewhere.' I didn't know what to do--I just walked out."
She and the fund were mismatched from the start, she says--her age, her race, her sex all set her apart. "They got really tired of me. They saw me as an idealistic, uncompromising kid. I guess I still am . . . They've never been able to take what I've said, or my advice, seriously." As a result, she says, she was shut out of all but one strategy meeting as opposition surfaced. "I asked to attend, and their attitude was, 'You? What could you do?' "
Why did she remain quiet?
"It was a gentlemen's agreement not to speak out for several months . . . the whole point was to let them have their ground-breaking."
But Lin contends the agreement was far from gentlemanly. "I was told, 'If you don't agree, we're gonna can the whole thing right now.' It was a real power-play blackball.
"I kept asking myself, 'Is it worth getting built if you have to sell out?' It was a really tough time for me. I just ran away, left the country. I probably should have fought," she says. "If you have principles, you can't ease back, or you lose them all."
The March 26 ground-breaking found Lin off to Taiwan, largely to avoid uncomfortable questions. "I would have loved to have been there under any other circumstances. The design was one of the best things I've ever done. I waited all year for ground-breaking--then I couldn't show my face there . . . I can just picture myself sneaking up there at the dedication: a voyeur to my own work."
Lin says the opposition to her design was minimal, and that the fund could have resisted successfully. "I wanted them to stick by their guns, wait a few years--it would've been built. But I couldn't do that without their help. Their attitude was, 'I don't care what gets built, as long as something is.' From their perspective, I can understand it, but it really scared me.
"They figured if they played along, they'd come up with a reasonable solution. Why do you have to? They'd spent three years working out a reasonable solution"--the competition won by Lin.
As for Frederick Hart's statue: "It's unprecedented--artists don't go around scabbing on other artists' work. I can't see how anyone of integrity can go around drawing mustaches on other people's portraits. I hoped he'd have the courtesy or guts to call me."
Even before the original competition was organized, Lin maintains, Hart "badly wanted to do it. Then he finished third or fourth. If you agree to the rules . . ." She pauses, exasperated. "I just feel he should have some kind of integrity. How can anyone do that and call himself an artist?"
Although Hart's design will not be unveiled until mid-August, it is understood to contain these features: three bronze soldiers in rag fatigues, standing 10 feet tall on a five-foot base. Two of the soldiers represent whites, one a black. One carries a helmet, one wears a so-called "boonie" hat. They stand informally, extremely close, perhaps touching. Originally, they were to carry rifles; these may be scrapped as too provocative. Their faces are young, their bodies loose but hair-trigger ready, their eyes focused on the flag at the fulcrum of the walls.
(Fund president Scruggs finds no problem in using two artists for one memorial. "Not as far as I can see . . . It's just reality--that's what's happening." Of Lin, he says, "Her job's really kind of done.")
What forced these changes in her design, Lin suggests, was the power of a few well-connected opponents. "I've just heard rumors--about influence, very high up," is all she will say for the record. But she notes the opposition of "the ultra, ultra right wing--very, very traditional men." And she wonders in particular about the political impact of wealthy industrialist H. Ross Perot, an early critic of the design with strong ties to the administration.
"I can't see how you go through a democratic process to choose a national monument and how such a small group of people can get their way anyhow."
She finds it particularly ironic that veterans, who "say they fought in Vietnam to defend freedom," find her understated, "think-what-you-will" design so distressing.
Lin had expected the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to protect her design when it meets in September. "I'm not so sure anymore . . . I hope they don't cave in. If they do, there's no hope."
She is similarly uncertain about Kent Cooper, whose Cooper Lecky firm in Georgetown is the memorial's architect of record. Might Cooper refuse to work with a statue and a flag he considered unduly obtrusive? "He once told me he would do that if anything like this occurred. But the last time I talked to him, it didn't sound like he would."
If she had known in advance it would turn out this way--her own monument in the nation's capital, and then something no longer her own? "It's not worth it. It'll be a failure if it doesn't come across as what I thought it should mean."
"Of course it hurts--it's really disillusioning. The unethical process, the power of it all, the politics of it all."
What does she think will happen? "I know what I'd like to happen. That it would take 100 years, or at least my lifetime, to come up with the sculpture . . . That it would all go away . . . "
Including the walls? Lin looks up.
"No, I kind of like the walls."