From the Wall to the Wave

“Each half of the wall is 246.75 feet long, combined length of 493.50 feet. Each segment is made of 70 panels. At their intersection, the highest point, they are 10.1 feet high; they taper to a width of 8 inches at their extremities. Granite for the wall came from southern India.

“The wall contains 58,175 names (as of October 1990). The largest panels have 137 lines of names; the smallest panels have but one line. There are five names on each line. The names (and other words) on the wall are 0.53 inches high and 0.015 inches deep.”

This is a description of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site in a corner of The Mall in Washington, D.C. The clinical statistics above do not reveal the powerful underlying feelings its very existence unleashes still. The design was by a young Chinese-American woman named Maya Lin. At the time she made her proposal (one of 1420 submissions) she was a 20-year-old undergraduate student at Yale University. Born of Chinese artist parents in Athens, Ohio, she defended her design amid swirling controversy, even into the halls of Congress. Completed in late October of 1982, “The Wall” has remained a place of fractious discourse and intense emotion.

The Wall

The Wikipedia entry makes as dispassionate a case as possible, describing both the work and the surrounding debate.

Wikipedia entry link

Businessman Ross Perot, years later a Presidential candidate, hearing that a young Asian woman had been given the commission, is said to have called her an “egg roll”. A prominent conservative political pundit accused her of being (you guessed it) a “Communist.” A powerful Veterans organization continued to attack her ethnicity and motives years after the memorial had received hundreds of thousands of visitors. Claiming she had a hidden Confucian agenda in the design, some groups continue to demand that flags be flown above the site, as if only this gesture would make it “American.” article link

Here writer Ted Sampley says:

Many complained, understandably, that the Maya Lin design, which she had described as an "unexpected black rift in the earth," actually appeared to them "a black hole of shame" into which they would be required to descend to "cleanse themselves of the sin" of participating in the "evil war." To some vets, the design represented the war protesters "V" peace symbol, which the vets felt was used during the war in favor of the North Vietnamese war effort.

It is well worth reading the link above, as it gives a window into the unresolved issues of patriotism, race and ethnicity that roil our democracy today, even in the first year of the Obama administration.

Another, but opposing, position is taken by “Tom” on the My Hero website: article link

And here is how Maya Lin describes the work herself in a Smithsonian article from August of 1996:

“I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial not as an object placed into the earth but as a cut in the earth that has then been polished, like a geode. Interest in the land and concern about how we are polluting the air and water of the planet are what make me want to travel back in geologic time-to witness the shaping of the earth before man.”

Lin has insistently eschewed any political agenda. Her original proposal was done as a Yale undergraduate class project on funerary design. Many of her subsequent commissions give credence to her claim that she is an artist who is interested in the intersection of man’s artworks and nature. My friend, Frieda Lee Mock, made a feature documentary on “The Wall” and Lin’s subsequent work called A Strong Clear Vision. It won an Oscar for best feature documentary in 1995. link

In her notes to the film Ms. Mock says, "It was my hope that audiences would be moved by a story of how a very young person of vision and character. . .  could create works that resonate deeply for the millions who have touched and have been touched by the work. I realize now that this is a story of the American Dream."

The art movement of the 60s and 70s called Earthworks or Land Art was largely male and white-centric. One of the key artists was Robert Smithson who died in a plane crash on July 20, 1973 while scouting locations for a new work in Texas. He created “Spiral Jetty” in 1970.

Spiral Jetty
Spiral Jetty

Here is part of the Wikipedia description:

The Spiral Jetty, considered to be the central work of American sculptor Robert Smithson, is an earthwork sculpture constructed in 1970.

Built of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth, and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah[1], it forms a 1500-foot long,[2] 15-foot wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake which is only visible when the level of the Great Salt Lake falls below an elevation of 4,197.8 feet[3].

At the time of its construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. Due to a drought, the jetty re-emerged in 2004 and was completely exposed for almost a year. The lake level rose again during the spring of 2005 due to a near record-setting snowpack in the mountains and partially submerged the Jetty again.

Originally black basalt rock against ruddy water, it is now largely white against pink due to salt encrustation and lower water levels.

You can find more on Smithson at his website: link

Three of the main surviving proponents of Earthwork art are:

Walter de Maria who designed “Lightning Field” on a desolate New Mexico plateau at 7,200 feet altitude. It consists of 400 stainless steel rods embedded in the ground, the tips reaching a uniform height despite the shifting contours of the terrain.

Michael Heizer, who for more than 30 years has been transforming a large swath of Nevadan desert with bulldozers into an ambitious work he calls simply “City”.


A NY Times Sunday magazine profile from Feb. 2005 reveals a deeply obsessive man, a classic American maverick. It is a wonderful read of the American artist as tough-guy-loner, subduing nature to his relentless will. The writer of the profile, Michael Kimmelmann, has also narrated a slide show here that will give you quick insight into Heizer’s work even if you choose not to read the full article:

New York Times article link

And to the south, in Northern Arizona, James Turrell bought Roden Crater and its environs. He is also using enormous earth moving machines to reshape the land. But he is not trying to wrench it into an unnatural geometry; his intention is to create a labyrinth of internal passages and rooms inside the crater that each open to the sky, a window into the ever-shifting light of nature. Though Turrell is often categorized as an earth artist, his true milieu, like Dan Flavin’s, is nothing more or less than “light”.

Roden Crater
Roden Crater

Here is a shorter profile on Turrell written by Jori Finkel also for the NY Times, Nov.25, 2007:

New York Times article link

I won’t say more at this time about Flavin or Turrell because I think their work is of such compelling interest to cinematographers and filmmakers that I want to discuss them separately in future pieces.

A very humorous exploration of these remote places is the subject of Spiral Jetta a diary of sorts, a travel (mis)adventure by Erin Hogan, a “recovering art historian” at the Art Institute of Chicago. She sets out from her comfortable urban grid, solo in her VW Jetta, to explore the major earth-art sites of the Southwest. She has no conception of the scale of the land or the rigors of auto travel, well off even the backcountry two-lane blacktops. What she doesn’t find is all too predictable. The book is a hilarious read of the city/country mouse dichotomy. link

I know this began as a piece about Maya Lin. But aside from the fact that I have warned you before that my mind works in a synthetic, pile-it-on way, there is a point to this long and aggressive-male focused aside. Most of the Earth Art movement has been insistent and disruptive in its redefinition of the land, indifferent, some would say, to nature and ecology. It has been consistent with what a feminist critic might call the “phallocentric urgency.” To look at the timeline of Maya Lin’s work is to belie any notion of this large-scale aggression.

Here is a YouTube video of her discussing a show she did for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.

A search for her recent work led me to one of my favorite art places in the world: The Storm King Art Center, upstate New York, and just across the Hudson River from that cathedral to Minimalism, DIA Beacon.

The homepage of Storm King gives a brief video history and orientation by its director, John Stern. I visited the center a few years ago. Since then, I have been fascinated by its core concept of showing sculpture in nature rather than within the oft-alienating white walls of a museum. The site’s repository of 13 works by sculptor David Smith was the incentive for me to rent a car in Manhattan and drive north the one-hour plus trek. In the video below, after establishing a sense of setting, Stern brings us to—yes, Maya Lin, who has just created the third of her “Wave Field” trilogy here in a 13-acre site that previously had been a gravel pit. She gives us a brief tour of what the commission means to her as a key part in the evolution of her work.

Storm King Art Center link

A separate NY Times video follows her analysis in more detail and even takes us into her Soho studio.

New York Times video link

And this month her design for the renovated Museum of the Chinese in America opens in downtown Manhattan:

New York Times article link

Each spring, summer and autumn when Storm King is open to the public, a single artist is given a featured place. This year it is Maya Lin with both the “Wave Field” installation and newer work called “Bodies of Water.” In addition to exhibiting the usual drawings and models, Lin directly addresses issues of ecology and pollution.

And this brings us back full circle to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and what almost 30 years ago Lin was trying to do. There was not much of a Green movement at that time, certainly not in the flush of the early Reagan years. But somehow this young, inexperienced Asian-American woman had an instinct about what kind of memorial we should have for this most divisive war.

The Vietnam War was a trauma, an ultimately futile venture into Cold War geo-politics that cost almost 60,000 American lives and more than a million Vietnamese ones. A country had been ravaged and polluted by napalm and defoliants. The rice fields had yielded a rich harvest of unexploded ordnance for years. Lin did not believe that another massive object in metal or concrete on The Mall would eulogize the dead but, rather, would possibly profane the memory of the men, women and children who had died on that soil, foreign to Americans, home to the Vietnamese.

Nor would a grand-scaled memorial visually serve the landscape of The Mall itself, already awash in outsized temples and obelisks. What Lin did choose to do is to create an experience, not merely an edifice. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an emotional descent into the earth itself, a visceral metaphor of the grave, and the names of each American dead inscribed as a running headstone, all of them equal in death. And yet, if you stand at the ends of the 120 degree angled wall and continue the sightline out—at one end you will see the Lincoln Memorial and at the other end the Washington Monument.

There is to my mind continuity from “The Wall” to the Storm King “Wave Form”. Yes, Maya Lin means (as she explains in the video) for it to be an embodiment of a force of nature, the flow and ebb of water. But, to me, it also resembles the slight hillocks of not yet settled earth, of recently shoveled-in graves. We have seen this image even in the 21st century as low-level satellites have revealed the hidden mass graves of the atrocities in the Balkans and East Africa. You may well take exception with me about this reading. Fine.

But consider this. Michael Heizer’s “City” has been compared to the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, totemic monuments to the dead. In the Pre-Columbian United States, many Native American tribes buried their dead in more modest ways: earth mounds rising gently above the surrounding plain, this in keeping with their reverence for the land. Around these sites ceremonial cities evolved. I have visited several: the Hopewell and Serpent Mounds in Ohio, Spiro in Oklahoma and Criel in W. Virginia.

Burial Mounds Wikipedia link

Spiro Mounds Wikipedia link

As an artist, Lin’s singular focus on her commission at Storm King was to complete her “Wave Form” trilogy. But a great lesson we learn in art is that there are many aspects of the unconscious that are operative in our creations. It is an examination of these sometimes-elusive impulses that enriches the art that survives.

There is no question that “The Wall” will continue to evoke powerful emotions in us as one of our national memorials; generations will stand at this place long after most earthwork sites have cycled back to nature.

As for Maya Lin, her work continues to expand outward. But, I wonder if the psychic pentimento of a work as powerful as “The Wall”, once it inhabits you, will ever abandon you.



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