Maya Lin


Screenshot from Maya Lin, What Is Missing?, December 2014.

In 2012, three decades after ground was broken for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, artist and architect Maya Lin unveiled her final memorial: What Is Missing?, a multimedia project and interactive website charged with garnering awareness of and offering remedies for the mounting biodiversity crisis. Here, Lin discusses this work. An exhibition that focuses on the project and related sculptures is also on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through January 4, 2015.

ONE COULD ARGUE that none of my memorials have been monuments. Rather, they have been antimonuments—even the Vietnam memorial. I like to reinvent things, to question the assumption of a form. This fifth and last work in a series that engages the monument raises the question again—what could it be if you freed up the form, completely; if you allowed it to exist in multiple forms and multiple sites, whether permanent, temporary, or virtual? For instance, the website features a map of the world accessible in three formats: the past (an ecological history of the planet told via firsthand accounts), the present (a map of the work currently being done by environmental organizations), and the future (launching on Earth Day 2016, this feature will imagine plausible sustainable futures).

I’ve always known that What Is Missing? will be my last memorial. For me, memorials have never been about loss, or about the past for the sake of the past. They’re teaching tools; they’re educational. They ask if we can reflect on our past in order to help guide us to a different future. In fact, I hope this work won’t be a memorial in the end, because if we all try to do something for the planet there might not be a reason to memorialize. So in that sense, What Is Missing? is a true antimemorial, because it’s trying to prevent a memorial from being needed.

I’ve always cared about the environment, and I know I’ll be working on this topic for the rest of my life. The environmental movement is so much more complex now than when it started—since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. In the late 1960s, Lake Erie’s tributary rivers caught fire because of industrial waste. Remember the “Keep America Beautiful” ad campaign that pictured the Native American crying because people kept throwing litter out the window? At that time, pollution was very visible: Our rivers were clearly toxic, and the air was so bad in this country, it was truly killer smog. We only respond when we see an enemy, and pollution was then a visible enemy. Now, so much is degrading on a day-to-day level and there are so many different crises. Take climate change, which is slow-burn invisible. Al Gore put it well in An Inconvenient Truth: When you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly heat it up, it doesn’t even realize what’s happening. Intellectually we know, but we are not moving fast enough to change course.

We tend to isolate and solve problems in a linear fashion, but the solutions that we need for the environment require a much more holistic approach. If we’re lucky, we’ll move on climate change because it’s perceived as such a great threat, but my concern is that the species and habitat issues are going to be left to be solved later and we’ll miss the opportunity to combine these two critically important issues—protecting habitat and restoring degraded habitat—from forests to grasslands, creating natural estuary buffer zones along coastal areas that would not only protect us but would absorb a significant amount of carbon emissions as well as substantially increase biodiversity and species protection.

But the issues have to be made relevant to us, and they have to be both global and local. That’s what What Is Missing? is trying to do by asking people to share personal stories. We are getting people to reflect and engage on a personal level—getting people to connect back to nature—as well as showing what each one of us can do to help and how you can help environmental groups at both a local and a global level. I’m not trying to be anything other than a lens that points out certain things. Science fiction and art have always imagined the future before the rest of us got there. For example, when you evoke an image that the entire world population—living at the density of Manhattan—would fit into Colorado, the initial response from a person is, That’s it?? Moreover, to mitigate climate change would cost $700 billion annually—and that is approximately what we spend on cigarettes and a fraction of what we spend on defense budgets. It’s an idea that shifts our thinking patterns. We require a little reconditioning, little brain exercises that might help us think this is solvable. The question is, Will we move on it? It’s still to be seen. But it’s eminently solvable. With the scale of us and the scale of what we do, we can put this in check.

— As told to Annie Godfrey Larmon