On a bright winter day, when Golden Gate Park was filled with runners, rollerbladers, and other pleasure-seekers, we found ourselves in the de Young Museum's basement, gazing upwards through a wire net.
We are standing under a wire sculpture by Maya Lin, part of the her Systematic Landscapes exhibition. The piece is quite simple -- a large, uneven grid constructed out of thick wires, it outlines an underwater topography with gentle swells and drops. A collaboration with the Woods Hole Institute in Maine, the sculpture loosely transcribes a chunk of the North Atlantic seafloor into wire.
Systematic Landscapes dovetails with Lin's recent interest in organic forms. Her newest sculptures veer away from the Vietnam War Memorial's strict geometry; they are messier, more elaborate, and less controlled.
The sculptures in Systematic Landscapes retain Lin's interest in phenomenology. The larger sculptures invite physical engagement -- we move through, or around, the work. In the case of Lin's underwater landscape, we become more than passive observers. We become part of the sculpture, or perhaps the sculpture intrudes into our space, and the sculpture transforms our physical experience. The net's swells and curves define, and limit, our space, and we become fish, schooling beneath a gentle, undulating net.
Maya Lin's career has taken many twists and turns since she won the commission for the Vietnam War Memorial, but the Memorial continues to define her identity as an artist. By now, the story is all too familiar. At the time, Lin was an undergraduate at Yale University. Her design -- a simple, black marble chevron, engraved with the names of the 57,000 U.S. soldiers who perished in the Vietnam War -- is a work of great gravitas. Though the Vietnam War Memorial is an early work, almost all of Lin's signatures are present. The Memorial is minimal and abstract. It invites participation. It defines the viewer's space. The Memorial demands more than passive contemplation; it ignites emotion. Witness the constant queue of visitors, waiting to touch the names engraved in the Memorial's reflective black marble. Witness the flowers and gifts, laid at the Memorial's feet. The marble reflects our faces back at us, but now we see ourselves transformed -- with the names of the dead laid out across our faces, we suddenly find ourselves drawn into the Memorial, into the War. It is a powerful, wrenching moment. It tears away your composure, and leaves you exhausted, changed.
In other words, the Memorial does everything that a war memorial should do -- it helps us remember, it ignites our emotions, it gives grief a public forum -- and it engages with broader currents in art history. An artist needs just one work like the Vietnam War Memorial. And Lin hit her home run early. Like it or not, the Memorial defines her as an artist.
In recent years, Lin has expressed a desire to move away from her early success. These days, she says, she is less interested in creating memorials or solving architectural problems. Though she trained as an architect, she would like to step away from architecture, and redefine herself as an artist. Artists, she maintains, have more freedom. They answer to no outside imperatives. And at this stage in her career, what Lin wants, more than anything else, is the freedom to pursue an individual vision.
The works in Systematic Landscapes reveal the artist's desire for freedom and movement. The works here are more experimental. They reveal an interest in movement, in lines and shapes that are asymmetric and unstable. Systemic Landscapes includes a smattering of her smaller works, such as small table-top sculptures, drawings, and plaster "wall drawings." They continue her recent obsession with maps, topography, and models. Lin has expanded her repertoire beyond sculptures and architectural installations, to earthworks. Her interest in topography has taken a literal turn, taking the form of "Wave Fields," sculpted landscapes that undulate and move, much like the wire sculpture we first encountered.
Taken as a body, these works reveal the constant push and pull in Lin's work, between her penchant for systems, logic, control -- and her desire for freedom, movement, and chaos. Her experiments are interesting, but not always successful. Lin is a phenomenal problem solver, and she works best against constraints.
The pieces in Systematic Landscapes are well-finished and carefully crafted, but they lacked a certain richness. I left the exhibition feeling dissatisfied, but I couldn't quite articulate my dissatisfaction. I wanted, or expected, more, and did not find it. The pieces in the exhibition had a generic quality to them.
Lin is savvy enough to understand that her best work engaged with grand themes and primal emotions. At this juncture in her career, she has chosen another grand theme: Nature. But there is something about Lin's language, and her execution, that lacks emotional resonance. Could it be her choice of artistic vocabulary? Her choice of theme? Nature is a nebulous concept -- it is broad, and deep, and certainly "grand." But as a concept, it lacks a central fulcrum around which an artist might turn.
Lin's language, in Systematic Landscapes, is rational and technocratic. These pieces are based on computer models, algorithms, topographic models -- and though the undulating lines describe Nature, they are not inherently natural. There is nothing "natural" about a curved line. A tree reads as "natural." A bird is "natural." A line is an abstraction, and abstractions are artificial. This descriptive language of science and technology is coolly beautiful, but in the sterile gallery setting, it fails to captivate and catch fire. We are left one level away from the "real thing."
Might these pieces work better in a different setting? Would they be stronger if they were installations, if they were given a context richer, and more "natural," than the museum's white box? Given a different frame, perhaps Lin's Systemic Landscapes could come alive.
Maya Lin's Systematic Landscapesis at the de Young Museum through January 18, 2009.