de Young Museum, October 25 – January 18, 2009
“Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes,” at De Young Museum, closes next weekend and while not all the pieces are hits; the show is definitely worth seeing. Maya Lin is the architect who 25 years ago, as a Yale undergraduate, was catapulted to fame with her inspirational design for the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. Her high-profile career has since embraced both public and private commissions of architecture and art all over the world. While she has always been deeply interested in nature, Lin has recently turned her attention to the fragile and endangered state of our planet. “Systematic Landscapes” presents her recent studio work-a series of installations and three-dimensional works based on computer-generated renderings of landscape elements. Lin is committed to getting people to look closely at the landscape but from another angle. She is building nature from her point of view, focusing on what lies beneath the surface. The show is curated by Richard Andrews, director of Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery, where the exhibit originated.
The show opens with a gaping guffah. The pivotal piece, “2 x 4 Landscape,” comprised of 50,000 pieces of 2 x 4′s cut at different lengths and standing on their ends in a kind of staggering mound, is severely diminished by its placement in the Wilsey Court, directly under the Gerard Richter work. The two enormous optical goliaths fight each other for our attention, which steals the thunder of both. The piece is also installed in a corner which means that it can’t be viewed from all angles which is critical to experiencing this artwork. Taken as litmus test for the new de Young which, finally, is large enough to accommodate such grand and monumental works, the piece should have been installed elsewhere. That aside, there is something magnetic about the pixilated softness of this sprawling organic wooden form. This is Lin at her finest….she presents a very simple concept-that anyone can read anything into— that is both soaring and transcendent and at 30 tons, materially grounded.
Moving into the galleries, the next big work, “Blue Lake Pass,” is made of roughly two dozen 3 foot square blocks of particleboard sheets sandwiched together in vertical slices. Their tops are rendered in undulating curves referencing/mimicking the topographic line of the mountain range near Lin’s home in Colorado. These blocks stand waist to chest high and are arranged in a narrow grid through which the viewer can walk. The experience evoked a sense of discomfort in me, as attracted as I was to the sensuality of the dune-like tops which give a false sense of lightness to the piece.
Once inside, I felt pressed and uncomfortable navigating the weighty solid masses beneath. All of the artworks in the show went through basically the same design process—Lin created a 3-D model in her studio by hand, then fed that into a computer to get a large-scale model, tweaked that to get the aesthetic representation she wanted and then built the works by hand again for the exhibition. The engineering of these pieces is very complex and reveals Lin’s nuanced position between art, engineering and science. Lin uses technology-sonar bathymetric mapping, satellite and aerial photography and other tools—- to probe and interpret the form of the natural world. She then creates works that re-interpret the natural landscape as sculptural forms. Referring to the other exhibtion at the de Young, “Asian/American/Modern Art…,” Lin said “I really enjoyed wlaking through that show and it struck me in looking at the landscape art, that we are all looking at the land but I am doing so through the lends of new technologies, not just my eyes. There was this quote there on the wall about translating nature into the sublime but for me it;s with this layer of science. I love science.”
“Waterline” (2006), an elegant underwater topography, is one of the most powerful pieces in the show—it successfully fills the small gallery in which it is placed. It refers to an actual underwater volcanic mountain called Bouvet Mountain, which is situated at the nexus of three-mid ocean ridges near Norway. The piece is a network of aluminum tubing painted black, suspended over the viewer’s head and emerging out of the walls and at the same time evokes the simplicity of a meandering line. Lin’s asks the viewer to reconsider the way waterlines emerge, not from the usual orientation of the break between water and air, but from beneath the earth’s surface where the water is sitting on the earth that contains it. Artwise, I cut my teeth in Eastern and Central Europe, writing about art in the early 1990′s, during the transition from socialism. I saw a lot of this type of very simple and elegant work there and am particularly reminded of Polish artist Ludwika Ogorzelec who has been exploring the power of the line to define and create volume for decades.
“Waterline” also inspired “Where the Land Meets the Sea,” Lin’s landscape for the West Terrace of the California Academy of Sciences and the first permanent artwork by Maya Lin in San Francisco. The sculpture represents the topography between Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge and is the third in a series of large wire sculptures. It was inaugurated at the Academy on October 24th, when “Systematic Landscapes” opened across the concourse. Fabricated from 5/8 inch marine grade stainless steel, the 36′ x 60′ x 15′ piece seems to float in the air, flowing seamlessly like a line from the Renzo Piano building. In actuality, the piece is engineered to the hilt, supported by six columns and suspended by nine steel cables from building’s solar roof canopy. To make the hills and valleys of the terrain more visible, the actual scale of the landscape is exaggerated by five times above the sea level and about ten times below. The evolution of this piece is revealed at the de Young where its models are on display
“Bodies of Water” (2006) is a series of Baltic birch plywood pieces that are topographic representations of the basins of the Caspian, the Red and Black seas, environments all endangered critically by man’s activities. The viewer is directed to what lies beneath the surface, where the damage that is irrevocably altering these once robust ecosystems is occurring. Elevated on pedestals so the viewer confronts them head-on, and balanced on their deepest point, these elegant works, exert a magnetic pull. They are also familiar. I am reminded of a year I spent before graduate school working for British Petroleum where similar-looking sea-bed models were derived from sonar-based technology with an eye to pinpointing oil reserves. Formed from stacking successive layers of thinly sliced wood, Lin has tweaked her model by “pulling layers out” to emphasize certain effects–the depth of the sea has been increased relative to the surface area. “Just like a topographic map, it’s an exaggerated reality and in the end, I pulled out what needed to be emphasized,” explained Lin. “I am not trying to re-create exactly because then, I could just join a science fair. What I am trying to do is to get you to think about what is below the surface that which is going to disappear that we will never know because we have taken out its habitat.” Despite all the technology behind these built landscapes, what sets these works apart is their ability to take us into our deepest feeling about the natural world.
“Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes” will travel next to Washington D.C.’s Corchoran Gallery of Art, April -July 20009. Geneva J. Anderson