publication of the International Sculpture Center
Who Sees Space:
A Conversation with Maya Lin
by Jan Garden Castro
sculptures, environments, and architectural projects flow out of a vision
of a universe in harmony with itself, its different branches and modes
of being. Her gift is creating work that rethinks human relationships
to earth and time. She is Taoist in spirit, American in ingenuity.
Ecliptic, 2001. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Detail of skating rink.
Her 1998 traveling
exhibition, Topologies, contained several small-scale works
whose new ideas she has further developed in large-scale projects, including
Ecliptic, the redesign of a 3.5-acre park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, completed
in September 2001. The character of a hill, under glass (2002),
a curving floor for a winter garden at American Express Financial Advisors
in Minneapolis, is her latest finished work. And an as-yet-untitled project
for 200304, an enormous earth sculpture in Miami, is underway.
Her book Boundaries
(Simon & Schuster, 2000) navigates her multi-faceted career as an
artist/architect and articulates the distinctionsand connectionsshe
has drawn between each field. Site is an important facet of her vision.
Her public art projects evolve in response to a particular site and humanist
mission. Lins sculptural projects include Ten Degrees North (a
water/stone table of the world from the perspective of 10 degrees north
that serves as the centerpiece of Lins granite, wood, bamboo, and
cane interior for the Rockefeller Foundations headquarters) and
the Penn Station solar clock Eclipsed Time. Of her deservedly famous
Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, Michael Kimmelman
has said, It is the closest public art has come to an alternative
to the heroic public sculptural ambition of Michelangelo or Bernini.
Untitled (Topographic Landscape)(detail with Avalanche), 1997.
Particle board, 16 x 18 x 2 ft.
Lins work often
integrates a scientific and/or historic component into a living form,
a reminder to treasure earth and stone, time and space. As she says, I
feel I exist on the boundaries, somewhere between science and art, art
and architecture, public and private, East and West. I am always trying
to find a balance between these opposing forces, finding the place where
Jan Garden Castro:
How do you define your work as a sculptor?
I see myself as a sculptor who incorporates spatiality into her work.
I am less interested in creating sculptural objects than in exploring
sculpture as built environment. In making these works, I think in terms
of ones experience walking through themI see them as spaces
in relation to time. Its probably why I rely so much on writing
and making models. Writing can help clarify the ideas within the works,
as well as help me see what the experience of a work will be. And as for
the models, on any given day, models cover the floorsfor everything
from a detail of an architectural project to one of the sculptures. Its
more labor intensive, incredibly cumbersome, and got me into trouble in
my training as an architect. Thats how I see.
In my studio works,
I often create an ambiguity between the work and the gallery space. For
instance, Im working on a series of landscape reliefs built up on
sheetrock and then cut and inserted into a regular architectural wall.
I see my large-scale works as sculpture, although they exist, at times,
in the same place as landscape architecture or architecture.
I prefer to make
distinctions between my art and architectural work. Unlike Scott Burden,
Siah Armajani, Mary Miss, or even Alice Aycock, I would say my sculptures
are not architectonic in form. I consciously pursue ideas that are tied
to landscape. My art studies and captures natural phenomena and landscape;
in addition, I often use technology to see our environment.
The character of a hill, under glass, 2002. Curved floor and winter
garden at American Express Financial Advisors, Minneapolis.
spoken of growing up in Athens, Ohio, and visiting the Serpent Mounds,
a spectacular earthwork that perhaps was one inspiration for Wave
Field, which faces the Aerospace Engineering Building at the University
of Michigan. I understand you have another earthwork in progress in Miami.
Would you talk about that? And the process of engineering earth into a
ML: The General
Services Administration commissioned me to create an artwork for a federal
courthouse in Miami. Im very site specific. Arquitectonica designed
the building, which is shaped like a boat in plan. At first, they thought
that Id put an artwork down at one corner as an entranceway, but
I became interested in the field that surrounds the building. Its
about six times the size of Wave Field, which is 10,000 square
feet. Wave Field, due to its size, has the sense of being an object
until you walk into it, and then its scale takes over more as a field.
I always wanted to explore a site that, due to its scale, already reads
as a spatial environment.
Another thing is
that Wave Field is a water wave formation. The one in Miami is
about sand patterns under the waves, so its a very different pattern
from the cupping of waves. Sarah, my assistant, and I have been studying
dunes, rippled sand effects, erosion patterns in the earth. Ive
been experimenting with that in model form.
I like to balance
one or two projects at a time and learn what the differences are between
them. Im very interested in how the change of scale is going to
affect how one reads this piece.
has Wave Field held up? You distorted the grid of the wave, making
Model for the American Express floor.
holding up fairly well. Its a sandy soil mix that drains well. Weve
started experimenting with different soil compositions [for Miami]. Our
biggest concern is that water will puddle in the low areas. Weve
formulated, with landscape architecture consultants, a sandy soil mix
for the entire field that acts as a wick and distributes the moisture
evenly. The indigenous soil in Miami is already very sandy, so we didnt
have to experiment much.
In answer to the
second question, even though I based Wave Field on a symmetrical,
naturally occurring phenomena, the Stokes Wave, when I built the first
conceptual model, it was uneven. But it had a magic or power that captured
the photograph I was working from. When I built the second and third models,
I made them symmetrical and they went flat. The model lost its life. You
have to balance the forms carefully to make them feel natural. You push
it slightly off kilter. Its why, I think, if a persons face
were dead-on symmetrical, that person would look frightening and strange.
What we see is symmetry, yet nothing in nature is technically symmetrical.
So the slight differences between the left side and the right side are,
essentially, what Im striving for. Im playing with what looks
balanced. Its building in the mistakes. If you push it too far,
the mistake takes over and begins to look premeditated. As we look around
us, our eyes and our minds are interpreting and understanding, but if
you try to intellectualize it, you can lose it.
brings us to the winter garden for the American Express Financial Advisors.
Youve used architecture and scale in two ingenious ways: first,
to create the undulating topographic landscape in the exhibition Topologies
and, currently, in the undulating floor of the winter garden.
ML: I cant
believe American Express has been so supportive in allowing me to realize
an idea I have been wanting to see for many years. I have certain visions
that sometimes take as long as five to 10 years to realize; I have to
wait for the appropriate site. For instance, at Am Ex, the artwork is
about a landscape you enter. For a long time I had been wondering if someone
would let me curve a floor. It had to be a wood floor, something that
you naturally assume is straight. I kept envisioning how easy it would
be to do because I built a curved roof for a housethe straight sections
were just warped.
With American Express,
I took what I learned from Untitled (Topographic Landscape). The
substructure of the floor is cut, curved pieces; we made cardboard models,
put the dimensions into a computer, and then studied the form point by
point by point. The architects and the engineers kept saying, Oh,
no, youre going to have to put nail points down and screen concrete.
I said, Were going to lose the curve. Were going to
build a honeycomb structure of particle board. Actually, it turned
out to be plywood.
The floor is fabricated
with the exact curve we built in model after model. Its actually
a very subtle curve in an area just over 2,000 square feet. Some of the
models are so big we had to dismantle them to send them out. Once the
sub-floor is done, they lay thin sheets of plywood, and then the maple
floor goes on. Maple will take the curve.
We take for granted
a slight undulation in the ground plane outside. The question was, what
happens when you take it indoors? The challenge was to take what I was
working on with Wave Field inside. I did that first in my traveling
show Topologies [curated by Jeff Fleming]. I wanted to do
it again as a permanent part of an architectural work.
10 Degrees North, 1997. Interior architecture of the Rockefeller Foundation
Headquarters, New York, with water and stone table of the world.
a way, youre using sculpture as a basis for architecture, and in
another way, youre turning the architectural model form into sculpture.
a dialogue between the way Im working as a sculptor and as an architect.
Another project Im working on is a series of landscapesriverscapes
or dunesmade from joint compound on sheetrock. To install it, you
cut a hole in the existing sheetrock wall, tape it in, and paint it over.
Im introducing a landscape work not as an object but as an intrusion
in the space, a cut into the walls of a building.
A Shift in the Stream. Was that the first? Do you have others planned?
was the first. Yes, one client for a house asked me to put in a rippled
dune artwork. Technically, its still an object and could be removed.
It is installed the way you would install a regular sheetrock wall. I
am interested in seeing architecture as a site to excavate.
you use a CAD program for the winter garden floor?
but I dont understand it at all. My assistants coming out of school
think in computer language. I make the physical models.
10 Degrees North, 1997. Interior architecture of the Rockefeller Foundation
Headquarters, New York, with water and stone table of the world.
have you handled the practical considerations of doing a curved floor?
For example, for handicapped people, and in snow and in rain?
its an indoor space, we tried to make the undulations pretty gradual.
As a precaution, we will put up a notice for people to watch their step.
After all, it is an artwork.
is very cold; have you worked with landscape designers on the plantings?
The trees on the inside are a type of olive tree. We went for something
not too exotic that we knew would work. On the outside, I wanted to go
with birches because, again, winter to summer, even with the leaves down,
the white bark is stunning. I wanted it to be visually interesting as
a winter space from inside to outside.
move from your identification with earth-based work to stone and clay
works. Your middle name, Ying, means precious stone.
ML: You dont
pronounce the Y. Ying is a precious jade. Certain things areno one
ever plans them. It is ironic, in a way, that I work with stone and that
is my middle name.
you want to discuss specific stone installations? Three of my favorites
are Sounding Stones at the Federal Courthouse Plaza in New York,
the open-air Peace Chapel at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, and
Ten Degrees North.
ML: One of
my favorites is The Civil Rights Memorial. It works with the notion
of the spring, the water, the font, but also the use of stone signifies,
to some degree, an agelessness, a timelessness, a coming together of history,
linking past to present. Stone is an ageless mediumIm drawn
I think that my
father being a ceramist gave me an affinity for earthworks and earth forms,
and, again, the use of time. You can think of a stone or a rock as being
as old as the earth itself, so what is its age? No matter what its form,
it just survives. Its there. Some mountains are young and some mountains
are old, but were still talking about something that has a sense
of time that other materials, to me, dont necessarily capture.
used glass to create your installation Rock Field in Topologies.
Thats another of my favorites. Before the Pilchuck residency, I
had done work with broken glass but never with blown glass. Im not
about fabricating. Its more an idea. The monoprints that I started
pulling at Pilchuck were about the process of cracking a plate, not consciously
making an image, so to speak. Pilchuck, the name itself, is taken from
the beautiful, river-washed stones around there, and I started collecting
them. I didnt know what I was going to do with them. It got to the
point where people were leaving gifts of stones at my table. Spontaneously,
working with the gaffers (glass blowers), I would bring in these rocks
and say, Can we make a shape like this? We talked about symmetry
and asymmetrya lot of the art of blowing glass, as in clay, is that
perfect centering, the rotation of the blowing rod so it spins out perfectly.
It was amazing to say to these expert gaffers, I want it slightly off.
They had to retrain to become more sloppy, but, again, it has to be in
balance to work at all. Thats what I was looking for instead of
that perfect, rotated, symmetrical form.
you used stone and clay in your studio work?
Civil Rights Memorial, 1989. Stone, installed in Montgomery, Alabama.
ML: In all
my models for the earthworks, I use plasticene, which is clay imbued with
an oil so it never dries out. Ive been using clay since my college
days. I know thats my fathers influence. I never thought it
was unusual: the plasticity of clay, the fluidity, a medium that has a
way of never finding its shape. I havent exhibited them except as
maquettes and studies.
completed Ecliptic in Grand Rapids in September 2001. Could you
discuss the use of science and fiber optics in this public space? And
the theme of solid, liquid, vapor?
ML: It started
when the Frey Foundation, a private foundation, selected me to put a work
of art in downtown Grand Rapids. I asked them what the site was, and they
had a corner of a much larger park area. I thought it was highly problematic,
because the park was in bad shape, and I didnt feel that an artwork
in a quiet little corner was going to change much. I pretty much told
It turns out that
the city of Grand Rapids was in the process of revamping the entire 3.5-acre
park. I made a suggestion to the Frey Foundation that if they brought
me in as an artist, I would then work with a team of engineers and landscape
architects to redesign the entire park. The Freys donated my design as
the artist. Nobody quite knew how that would work out because it was a
real private-public interface. We all went into it figuring that it might
not work contractually, and it all worked out amazingly well.
Usually, the artist
is brought in at the very last minute when the buildings are built, everythings
been bid out and, effectively, done. Theres very little the artist
can do except play catch up. For me to be brought in at the beginningit
turns out that there was a bandstand and a restroom/service facility that
needed to be designed...the skating rink is what I was really interested
My interest gets
piqued by certain things. Grand Rapids is on the Grand River, and I began
to think contextually of creating a work that dealt with water. It evolved
into a sculptural piece about the three states of watersolid, liquid,
and vapor. There are two fountains, one a water fountain, one a mist fountain,
and the third piece is the ice rink.
As it started evolving,
there was a grade change of about eight feet from one corner of the skating
rink to the other. As you know, I am obsessed by the curvature of the
earth. You also know that water has to freeze on a flat surface. But I
could play with how the tiered amphitheater moves to create the illusion
that you are skating on a slightly titled plane. That became the core
of the artwork.
We started to think
about lighting the rinks surface, and Linnaea Tillitt, a designer,
suggestedt fiber optics. I got a constellation chart of the midnight sky
above Grand Rapids on January 1, 2000. It caught one moment in the millennial
year when we were creating the park. In the end, the idea became larger
than the states of water; it also plays with celestial navigation. The
piece also deals with timeas well as this slight, subtle change
in how one perceives walking on the curvature of the earth. This is the
opposite of the Knoll furniture, which was about curvature. This ones
about the tilted plane that you walk on.
the rink actually curve?
The Peace Chapel, 1998. Stone, installed at Juniata College, Huntington,
ML: No. The
ellipse is flat, but the way the tiered seating is steppedon one
side its above the ring and on one side its below the ringmakes
you feel that youre on a slightly tilted plane. The actual edge
of the skating rink is a crisp edgetheres no rim. There is
a skating handrail, but you can skate right up to the edge. Its
a subtle play on perception.
dedicated your book Boundaries to your family; you also said that your
parents didnt discuss their past in China and that you were 21 when
you learned that your aunt had helped design Tiananmen Square. Have you
learned more about your roots?
ML: I have
and I havent. I have many books. Wilma Fairbanks just wrote a book
on my uncle and aunt, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin [Liang and Lin,
University of Pennsylvania Press]. They are quite well known in China;
a soap opera in Hong Kong is based on them. They were the preeminent architectural
historians. They studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania
and at Yale and brought Modernism to China. They were architects in love
with an ideal. My aunt died young. My uncle at first was for progress
and hence the design of Tiananmen Square; later in life, he realized the
importance of preserving the old China. Then he was at odds with the regime
that wanted to wipe away the old. Its a mixed blessing, I think.
They traveled throughout China and documented the old temple styles in
an amazing, beautiful book; it was a lost volume. Wilma and John Fairbanks
found the volume and published it many, many years later.
you see any inspiring places in China?
ML: The one
that was amazing was my fathers childhood home in Fukien. I could
never figure out why I am so strongly influenced by Japanese architecture.
Going back to my fathers childhood house, its a Japanese-style
house built on a river. He was influenced by this house, then he shared
his aesthetic with ushe made all the furniture, the pottery we ate
off of, so thats where the affinity gets connected.
Rock Field (detail), 1997. Glass, 46 components, dimensions variable.
explains your houses with moving walls.
Isnt it amazing?
that youre a wife and mother, does sculpture play a role in your
I met my husband, Daniel Wolf, there was not a single square foot of floor
space free in his apartment. You had to hop to get to the dining room
table. He collected pre-Columbian pottery and minerals. There are still
objects everywhere. My two little girls are growing up with sculpture,
probably much more so than paintings or photographs: sculpture, pre-Columbian
works, stone matates, minerals, Neolithic ceramics, and later bronzes.
We havent broken anything yet. I just bought some little puzzle
toys that are very freeform. I cant wait to get them introduced
to clay. Uptown, I have very little art that Ive made; the place
is being taken over by books.
There are mineral
caves near our place in Colorado. My first summer there, I dug up an incredible
red clay. It might be about time to give some of this red clay to the
kids and see what happens. I think were past the were
going to eat it stage.
is the Extinction Project, which you launched in Boundaries,
Timetable, 2000. Granite, steel, and stone, installed at Stanford
officially involved now with the Yellowstone Foundation; Im doing
a work for them that ties into biodiversity and the history of the conservation
movement. I started this summer. Ive been collecting clippings,
notes, talking to many scientists. Yellowstone will help me push it where
it needs to be.
Were at a terrible
moment right now. This country is going through something we never dreamed
would be happening. I hope we dont lose sight of a larger picture
about the environment, about global warming. If something good could come
out of it, I hope that we as a country can really look at our energy needs
and work toward a type of energy efficiency that will not only help us
through this incredibly difficult time but also begin to deal with the
enormous environmental problems caused by global warming and automobile
emissions. Weve lost sight of what most scientists say is an enormous
threatclimate change is still there unless we quickly move to do
something. I hope we become more energy efficient. I think we have to.
September 11th changed
useveryone. My love of creating disappeared; I think a lot of artists
felt similarly lost. The one project that helped me through this time
was a chapel that I am designing for the Childrens Defense Fund.
Working on a spiritually based project that focused on helping others
was the only thing that could get me to start making things again.
Jan Garden Castro
is author of The Last Frontier (Eclectic Press, 2001) and curator
of Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne (Japan Museums and Jane V. Zimmerli
Art Museum, Rutgers, 2002).