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From the Collection: Maya Lin's "Silver River - Mississippi"

This periodic series of essays highlights objects from the Weisman's permanent collection.

The myth of the solitary artist who works ferociously in the studio on a single artwork, waiting for the right idea or brushstroke to arrive in a moment of involuntary epiphany is just that--a myth. Opposite this is the just as mythic idea of the architect who designs a building selflessly, with regards merely for how the building will function for those who live and work in the space. Although both of these concepts underlying artistic and architectural production are broad examples, they capture the idea of art as a private practice and architecture as an inherently public one. How, then, do those like the artist-architect Maya Lin, whose practice does not fit neatly into either category, balance these notions of private and public experience?

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Maya Lin has remarked on how her dual role as an artist-architect provokes questions of opposites, having said, "In the end, all of my works, whether monument or sculpture, engage you on a very individual basis. Because actually there is a sort of antagonistic relationship between a public place, a place for public display, and a private experience, these two notions generally have not gone hand in hand." Lin's use of the term experience to describe her works implies a variety of relationships one can have with objects and others in the world. Noting the obvious physical difference between art and architecture through the structures of private and public, Lin's statement points to the varieties of experience that both disciplines can provide. Despite these differences, the notion of intimacy, what she describes as how her works "engage you on a very individual basis" ties together her seemingly unrelated works, whether monument (Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1982), installation sculpture (Groundswell, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 1993), or an architectural intervention into landscape (11 Minute Line, Wanås Foundation, Wanås, Sweden, 2004).

Historically, an experience with art in the Western world often implies a visual experience (in contrast to a tactile one), but this is not always the case, particularly in the multidisciplinary field of contemporary art practice. An aesthetic experience can engage the physical body as well as the eyes, but it is not limited to just one organ because, quite simply, we are bodies that see, but we also feel, think, desire, and age. Architecture and the rest of the built environment implies a physical experience--just think of how one's body strides through rooms and corridors and treads along stairs and walkways--in contrast to the tacit beholding of an artwork in an austere, white-walled gallery. However, Lin's works cross this threshold between the false separation of visual and bodily experience through providing an intimate engagement. Whether sauntering along the grassy hills of Lin's Flutter or peering intently at each small wooden groove in 2 x 4 Landscape, her works require perceptual acuity not given to eyesight alone.

For Systematic Landscapes (2006), an exhibition organized by the Henry Art Gallery, Maya Lin translated geographical maps--which by their presentation on paper are often flat and two-dimensional representations of the multivalent, colorful landscapes that they intend to document--back into three-dimensional structures made out of everyday materials as diverse as wood, pins, and wire. One of the installations, Pin River--Mississippi (2007), a work commissioned for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis's exhibition of Systematic Landscapes, is a to-scale rendering of the Mississippi River presented as a sinewy line composed of thousands of slender silver pins pushed into the plaster wall. Oftentimes, what we take for granted through its commonplace occurrence appears most abstract when taken out of its expected context on a two-dimensional map, or in our digital age, on a monitor. Pin River's abstract line, everyday materials, as well as its scale, intensified beyond that of the printed page and presented on the wall as spanning more than a dozen feet in length, transforms the objectivity usually associated with something as precise as a map into an experience of enchantment and wonder.

Tucked away in the Riverview Gallery of the Weisman Art Museum is a thin, silver sculpture that was made by Maya Lin in conjunction with Systematic Landscapes at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and shares attributes with the aforementioned Pin River--Mississippi. This work, Silver River - Mississippi, may at first glance appear to be an abstract squiggle drawn high on the gallery walls. However small in scale, this silver-plated sculpture is an exact topographical rendering of the Missisippi River. By extracting a topographical rendering of the Mississippi River from its usual or expected context in terms of a two-dimensional map, Lin disrupts expectations by transforming a familiar and well-worn symbol into an abstraction. From the river as a historically-laden geographical site, Lin fashions a new icon for remembrance, an act that imbues this work with an austere, almost sublime reverence for the River.

Regarding her art and architecture practice, Lin has said that her "work starts with the impulse to feel something, to experience something." She transforms geography from a physical location or a repository for events in history's past into an experience--geography becomes a site that manifests particular cultural events and personal memories, a highly subjective act that creates a bridge between past and present. For Lin, vision is more than just sight or physical experience, serving as a reminder that the "whole body is not an assemblage of organs juxtaposed in space," rather, mind and body, vision and the senses commingle with each other. With the act of looking comes a torrent of memories as well as physical sensation, or at the very least, a curiosity as one is forced to try to figure out just what this silver squiggle is and what it represents.

Among architecture and art, between vision and the body, lies Maya Lin's practice. Engaged with the shared reality among these seeming opposites is also the reality of the physical world and geography that Lin's works document. In this sense, Lin takes the experience of art from "a conception of art that 'spiritualizes' it out of connection with the objects of concrete existence." The significance of this gesture, to restore art's relevance in the real world, positions the practice of the architect as well as the artist out of an idealized, mythic realm and into the unique existence that occurs at every lived moment.

--Corinna Kirsch, 2009-10 O'Brien Curatorial Fellow

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The secret of life isn’t what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you. Norman Vincent Peale

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