Monday, September 19, 2016

The Quiet Power of Maya Lin

Older artists who struggle futilely for recognition often envy those who achieve great success at an early age. But never being able to surpass or even equal a youthful triumph can be a cruel fate for those who believe you are only as good as your latest work. This is the potentially daunting reality that Maya Lin has lived with for three and a half decades, since she skyrocketed to fame at the age of twenty-one, when during her senior year as a Yale undergraduate architecture major she won the open design competition that resulted in the most influential public monument created since World War II: the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial of 1981–1982 in Washington, D.C.

Although Lin’s rigorously abstract scheme—devoid of the representational elements and allegorical imagery typical of war monuments since ancient times—provoked great controversy in some quarters when it was chosen from among the 1,421 contest entries, her powerful melding of the period’s two main avant-garde sculptural developments, Minimalism and Earth Art, fundamentally recast popular notions of commemorative architecture. This symmetrical composition of two wedge-shaped, vertically paneled, polished black granite walls set at a 125-degree angle to each other and sunk ten feet below grade at their deepest is inscribed with the names of 58,307 American military personnel who died as a result of the Vietnam War between 1957 and 1975.

The sloping walkway parallel to this 493-foot-long expanse of stone begins at street level and then reaches its nadir at the monument’s midpoint. The transit along the declivity gives one the palpable impression of being swamped by a tide of mortality as the rows of names rise higher and higher above one’s head. Then, as the pedestrian path begins to ascend at the structure’s midpoint, the opposite occurs, the sensation ebbing and abating as one reaches the flat expanse of the Mall once again, filled with relief that the flood of names has finally ended. It is not uncommon to see visitors in tears or even sobbing after they have negotiated this symbolic abyss, a journey made all the more unnerving because of the unconsoling directness of the experience.

The adage that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan certainly pertains to those involved with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial commission, although the person most responsible for its triumphant outcome—the artist herself—has never tried to arrogate sole credit for what became a hugely complicated and highly politicized process. Robert Doubek, who served as executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund—the nonprofit organization created in 1979 to raise money for the monument’s construction—has written a heartfelt memoir of the struggle to bring this patriotic dream to fruition, and he is not at all reticent in aggrandizing the part he played.

As the definite article in his subtitle suggests, Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story is not only a first-person but also a one-sided account of this frequently contentious saga. Nonetheless, for all its flaws and self-serving paybacks, this is a valuable contribution to the memorial’s historiography, above all in Doubek’s portrayal of conflicting forces vying for supremacy. We get a vivid sense of the emotions Lin’s design aroused among those who felt her scheme was disrespectful to the memory of the fallen because of its uncompromising abstraction and the way it is dug into the earth—a grave, a pit, a latrine, detractors charged—rather than elevated to a position of high honor.

Doubek admits that he was no fan of Lin’s design as it emerged from the crowd of other submissions during the selection process. “[Her] sketches and drawings were very amateurish,” he writes, “and the black shapes said nothing to me. ‘What the hell is that?’ I had thought.” A very different reaction came from the West Point–trained Jack Wheeler, cofounder (with another former soldier, Jan Scruggs) and chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, who instantly declared, “It’s a work of genius.” Doubek still didn’t get it. “I had anticipated a messiah emerging from the mists of competitionland,” he recalls of his first meeting with Lin. “But she didn’t have a lot to say and didn’t seem to know or care much about us. I felt like I had let a genie out of the bottle only to have the genie chill out.”

Things between them never improved greatly, and in the book’s postscript the author sourly notes that it was only in 2007 that “Lin for the first time expressed thanks to me and the others with VVMF,” oblivious to why it may have taken her so long. But Doubek’s obtuseness was far from the worst adversity Lin faced, as she endured vicious sexist and racist attacks from those outraged that an Asian woman—a “gook,” many openly said—should determine how the Vietnam War was memorialized for the ages.

Concerted objections to Lin’s design among veterans’ groups led to the addition of a naturalistic bronze statue, Frederick Hart’s The Three Soldiers, which depicts a trio of zombielike combatants who exhibit the so-called thousand-yard stare of battle-hardened warriors. Unveiled a year after the main memorial’s completion, this kitschy tableau was at least placed far enough away from the great earthwork to inflict minimum damage. Not surprisingly, Hart’s hypermasculine lineup spurred feminists in turn to demand yet another sculptural supplement to the site, which resulted in the Vietnam Women’s Memorial (1993), a bronze figural group by Glenna Goodacre that shows three servicewomen tending to a wounded GI in the attitudes of an overcrowded but still male-centered Pietà.

As the art historian Harriet F. Senie reports of her study visit to the Mall in 2005, Lin’s and Hart’s works impel very different responses from visitors. In contrast to the main memorial, The Three Soldiers, she writes,
attracted a respectful crowd but not an awed or silenced one…. One young man wearing fatigues and smoking a cigarette was…draped over the figures: respect was not evident. The sculpture, composed of so much posturing, seemed to prompt some more in its visitors.
In her new book, Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11, Senie examines the changing nature of commemorative design during the three decades that separated those two watersheds in American history. She seems to side with early opponents of Lin’s scheme who somehow interpreted it as critical of the Vietnam conflict. As she writes:
The guidelines for the competition…insisted that the memorial make no political statement about the war. It might be argued that refusing to discuss the war was tantamount to a negative statement about it and that silence itself could be considered a distinct form of rhetoric. Although responsibility for the creation of meaning at a memorial (or any work of art) ultimately rests with the viewer, the rhetorical effect of silence is heightened at the VVM by its reflective surface. As one confronts the names, essentially staring both separation and mortality in the face, interpretation inevitably becomes personal and—given the nature of this war—political….
Visitors behave reverentially, as if they were at a cemetery, largely because the presence of bodies is implied by the list of names on the Wall…. Even though most of the Vietnam dead are buried in local cemeteries around the country, interment is implied by the way the memorial is placed into the ground.

There are many good things in Memorials to Shattered Myths—especially Senie’s insightful interpretation of the modern phenomenon of spontaneous vernacular memorials, which arise on the site of tragic incidents ranging from fatal traffic crashes to random shootings and are quickly festooned with flowers, balloons, candles, stuffed animals, and handwritten tributes. However, her reading of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial strikes me as mistaken, most of all her assertion that the design is somehow evasive about the true nature of the war and inevitably mistaken for an actual burial ground. I find the opposite to be the case.

The pervasive influence of Lin’s masterwork has been repeatedly demonstrated in a period when traditional forms of architecture and sculpture seem wholly inadequate in memorializing events once deemed unimaginable, most clearly the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s National September 11 Memorial of 2003–2011 on the site of that catastrophe reinterprets several of Lin’s concepts in highly original ways.

So as not to become architecture’s Lady of Perpetual Mourning, Lin has turned down all but three subsequent offers to design memorials, including that at Ground Zero. She is now working on what she promises will be her final effort in that vein, the Memorial to the Sixth Extinction, intended to raise awareness of species protection and funded through her What is Missing? Foundation. (The other two commemorative commissions she did accept were the Civil Rights Memorial of 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Women’s Table of 1993 at Yale, which was commissioned in 1989 to mark twenty years of coeducation at her alma mater.)

She turned instead to environmental sculptures, as well as to a smaller number of modestly scaled buildings that have led some to underestimate her degree of professional ambition. Yet in contrast to architecture as many males in the profession still would define it—the bigger, costlier, and showier the better—her meditative view of the building art provides a means for expressing poetic impulses about humanity’s place in the natural, rather than man-made, environment. Indeed, Lin’s steadfast determination to ignore the corruptions of modern publicity—that fatal addiction of postmillennial culture, signified in her profession by the hideous neologism “starchitect”—is among her most important qualities.

It could be said that such indifference is easy for someone whose place in architectural history is already secure. But the blatant degree to which some of Lin’s colleagues in the profession, female as well as male, have fallen in with the contemporary celebrity industry offers a cautionary contrast. When Jerry Seinfeld was asked last year on CBS News Sunday Morning how he could ever possibly exceed the phenomenal success of his eponymous TV sitcom, which ended in 1998, he replied in words that echo Lin’s attitude: “There’s only one way to top it. And that’s to remain an artist and not a ‘star.’”

by Martin Filler, NYRB |  Read more:
Image: Tim Hursley