April 14, 2014

Vietnam Memorial Designer Maya Lin Speaks of Art Career

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Artist, architect and designer Maya Lin — who rose to international prominence for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — spoke about her career and work on display at the Johnson Museum of Art Thursday.

Now focusing on environmental themes, Lin’s recent work — including the Empty Room installation from her What Is Missing? project — has been included in the beyond earth art exhibit, curated by Andrea Inselmann and currently on display at the Johnson Museum, according to Cathy Klimaszewski, associate director and the Harriett Ames Charitable Trust curator of education at the museum.

“Her last memorial — What Is Missing? — pays tribute to the natural world, biodiversity and all we have lost or are in danger of losing,” Klimaszewski said. “We knew early on that we wanted Maya to speak about this compelling project on campus.”

Lin described her work as utilizing both art and science as tools that can change the way one perceives the surrounding landscape.

“I use science and data to show the natural world,” Lin said. “Maybe I’m no different than an eighteenth or nineteenth century landscape painter, but we now have different ways of looking at the world around us with science.”

Having researched environmental issues for seven years in preparation for the What Is Missing? project, Lin said she aims to raise awareness of the human impact on Earth’s ecosystems, species and habitats.

“We have basically diminished the entire planet — our reach as a species has been enormous,” Lin said. “I always knew that my true love and concern has been the environment since I was a little kid, and I always knew I would end the memorials with this piece.”

Despite the “critical” nature of environmental threats — including species extinction, pollution and habitat loss — Lin said she describes herself as “optimistic” that patterns of ecological degradation can be reversed.

“Nature is actually pretty resilient,” Lin explained. “We’ve just beaten it down.”

Lin’s talk was successful in attracting a wide cross-section of Cornell campus and challenging the ways in which attendees “view and use the environment,” according to Prof. Renate Ferro, art.

“The auditorium was absolutely filled with community members, students and faculty from across disciplines,” Ferro said. “Lin mesmerized the audience with the modernist beauty of her architecture and monuments for the first part of the lecture, and then made an overtly political turn by engaging the public in educational consciousness in regards to extinction.”

Garrett Craig-Lucas ’16 said Lin’s artwork goes “way beyond a standard presentation” in its capacity to establish an emotional connection to threatened landscapes and animals.

“Lin, as an artist and an advocate, is able to link emotion and fact to create a powerful understanding of environmental issues,” Craig-Lucas said. “Her work and her presentation portrayed environmental issues with a sense of urgency while maintaining a necessary level of optimism.”