Intertwining Art and the Environment

Maya Lin in Hong Kong on Mar. 11, 2010. (Asia Society Hong Kong Center)

HONG KONG, March 11, 2010 - Just weeks after receiving her National Medal of Arts from President Obama, artist, architect, and environmentalist Maya Lin met with members of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center to recount her creative journey as an artist, and the artistic struggles she undergoes in balancing the three core areas of her work.

Lin took the world by storm in 1981 when she won the national competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, when she was only 21. "You do something like that when you were 20, what do you do after that?" commented Lin. Growing up in a family of scholars, Lin was always expected to pursue an academic career. Architecture seemed to combine art and math, both of which she loved, so she went to Yale and studied architecture, won the Veterans Memorial competition, and then got labeled as an architect. 

In fact, in the following 25 years, Lin carefully balanced her work in art, architecture, and what she calls a hybrid of the two, her memorial design. "Let's look at my work in a funny way as a tripod ... I can't make a choice. The architecture is the youngest, while I'm equally determined to have that third leg, the architectural leg, stand equally with the other two. But architecture can be—if you are not careful—it will become your life, your business." To prevent that from happening, Lin has deliberately kept her studio very small all these years. 

While not wanting to be labeled as an architect, Lin doesn't want to be typecast as a memorial designer either. However, her hands have been constantly drawn to using history in her works. "I began to realize how much history, if we forget it, if we don't realize it happened, then we can repeat it again." This belief has driven Lin to continue designing several of the most significant works of public art of the late 20th century. Lin is currently working on what she thinks should be  her last memorial, "What is Missing?" a piece dedicated to endangered and extinct species. Then again, Lin noted, she is so drawn to history, and worthy causes, that she doesn't seem to be able to turn down meaningful memorial projects that come her way. Possibly at a cost to the artist's time with her family, the world is fortunate enough to see the birth of the "Civil Rights Memorial" in Alabama, "The Women's Table" at Yale, and the more recent work of art Lin created to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition.

As a sign of her environmental commitment, Lin showed her video Unchopping A Tree to the audience, a piece that debuted at Copenhagen in 2009 and belongs to part of her conservation memorial "What is Missing?" When asked to give her thoughts on present-day China, Lin recalled visiting Beijing and Shanghai in 1986 and being impressed by how many bicycles were on the streets. She recommended that China make use of technology to avoid repeating the United States' mistakes in polluting the environment with heavy industry. "This is a country that has raised its middle class ... overnight almost, which is pretty remarkable. And yet, at the same time, we're facing an international ecological crisis that no one would have even thought about 30 years ago, global warming. You know it's here, and it's very real."

Lin ended on a note of tentative optimism, commenting, "I'm trying to do my part .... I think the technology is there, we could get there if we wanted to, the road is there. But if we continue to sprawl, and if we continue to live all over the planet, we were not going to have any biodiversity left and at a certain point, we'll break the system."

Reported by Winsome Tam, Asia Society Hong Kong Center