Asian-American Art: Maya Lin, Part One

MAYA LIN (1959-)

PART ONE: THE VIET NAM MEMORIAL

The Historical Context

Any artist of color, any artist who is a woman or who is gay must overcome unspoken but powerful barriers to their entry into the art world. Call it the glass ceiling, call it discrimination, women and artists of color have historically faced a wall of resistance to their art and to their points of view. A minority within a minority, Asian artists had a particularly difficult time finding a place in the American art world. Unlike African American artists and Hispanic artists and gay artists and women artists, Asian artist had no social movement specific to them to help propel them into the mainstream. However, in the early 21st century, their position has changed. Mainly due to the growth of a global art market, times have changed for Asian artists–not necessarily only in America but for the global art scene. Artists, such as Cai Guo Qiang who left mainland China to move to New York, have become some of the most important artists working today. Cai is joined by the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei, on the growing list of prominent Asian artists who have emerged into prominence in the past twenty years.

These famous males had some notable female precursors: Yoko Ono, Yayoi Kusama and one of the most famous and beloved artists in America an Asian woman, named Maya Lin. People from all over the world admire her work but few know her name—Maya Lin—and her story is remarkable. Maya Lin was the creator of the revered Viet Nam Veterans Memorial, now the most visited site of mourning in the world. When she designed the “Wall,” as the Memorial is called, Maya Lin was a senior at Yale University in her early twenties and her youth and gender make her achievements as an artist all the more remarkable.

Every now and then an artist emerges who changes the paradigm of art making. In other words, after this artist, art will never be the same. The artists who shifted the paradigm of 20th century art include Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock, artists who changed the way art was made and defined. Sadly there are no women on this list—until Maya Lin. Today we speak, because of her impact upon public art, of “BML” and “AML”—Before Maya Lin and After Maya Lin. After the Viet Nam Memorial was unveiled, artists who made public art, especially those charged with the problem of creating a “memorial” in the 20th century, had to reckon with Maya Lin’s achievement. With that one statement, a black “wall” embedded in the earth of the Mall in Washington D. C., Lin changed the visual vocabulary of public sculpture.

VietnamMemorial

Maya Lin’s Competition Drawing of the Wall

Indeed, when the Twin Towers were destroyed, the eyes of the country turned to Maya Lin to help America construct a fitting memorial, one as eloquent as her Wall. She refused but agreed to serve on the jury for a series of entries from artists and architects, all of whom were impacted by her work. The winner of the competition were architect and Israeli citizen Michael Arad and landscape designer Peter Walker and Reflecting Absence combined Lin’s characteristic use of shiny black materials awash with water and marked by names. In a remarkable article, The Breaking of Michael Arad, outlining the tremendous difficulty surrounding the World Trade Center Memorial, Joe Hagan followed the clash of multiple egos of multiple architects and multiple politicians which resulted in significant alterations of Arad’s original design and hard feelings all around.

“AML” or since Maya Lin, the public is very attuned to the importance of public memorials and, in all fairness to Arad, the stakes, thirty years later, were very high. But his struggle to build his design, his compromises and the not-very-satisfactory result is typical of the outcome of any struggle between and artist and the public. It is worth comparing Arad’s run-of-the-mill design to the work of Maya Lin because, although she was more than ten years younger then he, a female and an Asian, somehow, she managed to pull off the impossible–her original design was built, virtually unaltered from the charcoal drawings to the day of the dedication. The distinctiveness of her visionary design, a unified concept melding material and meaning, drew a line in the sand: this is what mourning means.

Maya Lin, at age 22, inscribed a profound and indelible mark on American art. Born in Ohio of a middle class family of university intellectuals, Lin’s father was on the faculty at the University of Ohio, teaching ceramics, and her mother was a literature professor. Her brother, Tan, is a poet. The Both her parents were immigrants, fleeing from the Communist takeover of China. Lin’s paternal grandparents had been educated in America, at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to China where they became well-known designers. Her grandfather was involved with the design of the flag for the United Nations and for post-Communist China. Despite his parent’s success, Lin’s father left China in 1948, two years after the Communist take over, and arrived in America on a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

Maya Lin’s mother had an even more interesting story. Her father had been a doctor who lost his medical practice and died in 1975. Seeking an education in America, she was smuggled out of Shanghai in a junk (small ship) with $10, a letter of acceptance to Smith College sewn into her clothes. After a six-month voyage, she arrived at Smith in October. When she was a grad student there, she met Henry Lin at the University of Michigan. As is often true with many diaspora families, the separation was permanent and the parents and children never saw each other again. Growing up in ordinary Ohio in the sixties, Maya Lin knew nothing of her family’s history and little of the controversial war her country was waging. Years later, when the controversy over the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial was raging over the fact of her race and gender, there was no public mention that Lin’s parents were anti-communists, who were almost surely sympathetic with the anti-communist aims of the War.

The Viet Nam was a controversial war in America that split the nation along generational and ideological lines. An older and conservative group, the “greatest generation” of World War II, approved of America’s intervention into Viet Nam and of the government’s mission to free a small Asian nation, few had heard of, from Communism. The younger generation, particularly the privileged young white men who were to fight this war, did not believe the war was either necessary or just. Why intervene in a local civil war between North and South Viet Nam? Why lose years of their young lives, or their very lives, in the service of a political idea called the “Domino Theory.” The young people disagreed with the thinking that if one Asian nation fell to communism, then other countries would fall as well, including Japan. The disagreements became public protest against the War which dragged on twenty years.

War protests were huge and became louder and more insistent as casualties grew while the war proved to be unwinnable. The result was a demoralized army high on drugs in Viet Nam and a polarized population at war with itself at home. Viet Nam veterans came home and had to contend with the anger of Americans who were against the War. Looking back on this sad era, most Americans today would agree that these veterans were treated shamefully. When Congress refused to continue funding the conflict and America pulled the last of its embassy staff out of Saigon, the Viet Nam War finally ended in 1975. The end of the war was nothing less than a defeat of a huge conventional army by a small guerilla army that was willing to fight for generations, if necessary, for their right for self-determination. America, used to winning wars, was shamed and traumatized by defeat at the hands of a small and inconsequential nation.For years, the males of America suffered from the stigma of the “Viet Nam Syndrome.” It took another war the Gulf War of 1990 end this pain. As President George H. W. Bush said, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”

The story of Maya Lin’s struggle to retain the aesthetic of her artwork is told by Marita Sturken in her 1991 article, “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” Maya Lin knew nothing of this wound in the American (male) psyche as she was growing up. In fact, Lin, living in a very white area of the country, did not know she was “Asian,” until she was in college and spent part of her junior year abroad in Denmark. During the Second World War, the entire nation of Denmark was a hero for gathering up its small Jewish population and ferrying it away from the Nazis to safekeeping in Sweden. But the Danes were not used to people of color. They thought she was an Eskimo and would not sit next to the tanned young woman on the bus. But her time in Denmark would be impactful: Lin visited a huge cemetery in Copenhagen, where the famous author of children’s books, Hans Christian Anderson, is buried. She was impressed at the way in which the Danes used the cemetery as a public park and began to think about public spaces, how the public used them, and what these sites meant to people.

By the time Lin was in college, the Viet Nam War was a distant memory for some and an ongoing pain for many. While she was at Yale, a Viet Nam veteran went to see a movie, The Deer Hunter (1979), which depicted the veterans who came home as traumatized and lost, victims of a political statement masquerading as a “war.” Although this War had cost an entire generation of young men the “careless youth” they felt entitled to, this “war” was also undeclared and remained, until the end of its days, a “police action,” without the dignity of a “real” war. As he relates in the 1996 documentary by Freida Lee Monk, Maya Lin; A Strong Clear Vision, Jan Scruggs left the movie theater, “determined,” as he said, to erect a monument to the Viet Nam veterans who had fought and died and had “lost” a tragic war. The path of the young college student and the veteran would soon cross. After forming a group of veterans in favor of building a Memorial and after getting the approval to have it built on the Mall, and after raising private money to cover the expenses, Jan Scruggs and his colleagues decided to hold a “blind competition” for the commission to design the Memorial.

A blind competition is rare, especially in the world of architecture and public art. The public is so sensitive about what is put into their space that most governments are careful to employ only those artists whose work is familiar, so they–those who commission the work–will know what to expect. In addition there are public hearings that precede and follow any public works. But perhaps because the Veterans were amateurs at this game of public monuments, they were open-minded and decided to ask anyone and everyone (an open competition) to compete and their names would not be known (blind competition), giving everyone a chance to win. The Viet Nam War was a recent war, still surrounded by the stigma of defeat, but perhaps because this war was still an unsettled cultural problem, this was a war that needed closure.

The notice of the blind competition reached Maya Lin and her fellow students in a senior seminar at Yale. They were studying funerary architecture, that is architecture that memorializes the dead, and the idea of designing a memorial for the veterans of the Viet Nam war seemed an appropriate senior project. The key term for the Memorial was “memorial,” not monument. A monument is for victory—Viet Nam was not a victory so any work that commemorated the event had to be a memorial is for the dead. The students were aware of the great Thiepval Memorial of the Missing (1932) designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens took the idea of the triumphal arch and inverted the notion of victory into one of suffering and mourning and as one peers through the arch, it metamorphosizes from triumph to tragedy for, in the distance, one sees endless rows of crosses for the dead on the battlefield of the Somme.

The idea of rows of crosses (some marked with a star of David) is sadly familiar, at Arlington, at Normandy, and each cross usually is inscribed with the name. At Theipval, the interior of the brick arch is inscribed with 72,194 names on the 64 piers for the building. The custom of marking down the names of the fallen could be seen at Yale where, for example, one can pass through an arched corridor which serves as Yale’s Civil War Memorial (1915) and on its walls are inscribed the names of those who were killed. At Theipval, a much much larger arch, the names can be found in the Memorial Reference which lists the names of the dead and missing in alphabetical order. The requirements or the brief for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial were simple: all that was required was to list the names.

Familiar with funerary architecture as the result of her course, Maya Lin would find the Thiepval Memorial an important precedent. As she related in the Monk documentary, each student in her seminar and even their professor submitted an entry and waited for the results. It is interesting to consider the fact that Americans’ expectations of public sculpture about war were fixed by their past successes in the military which had been celebrated through figurative sculptures. Even in the states of the former Confederacy which was defeated, the leaders were depicted was victors. Unlike the British and the French experience of the Great War, the United States had little experience with losing en entire generation of young men, an experience that was unspeakable. As a result, the American public was not familiar with the Thiepval Memorial which was both symbolic and conceptual rather than being realistic. This lack of familiarity of art as a concept or of a memorial as an idea would be crucial to the reception of the Viet Nam Memorial.

Adjacent to a long reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial is a temple containing a representational statue of a somber Abraham Lincoln. At the other end, the obelisk of the Washington Monument rises in the air. One is narrative and one is conceptual and both are white and pure. In addition, traditionally war images have been heroic, large, above ground, contain realistic figures of soldiers, and are white in color or are cast in bronze. But how does one mourn a war that ended badly? The lingering image of the Viet Nam War is a mad scramble into an impatient helicopter. For Maya Lin, who was too young to have memories of the debates about the war, the real question was—-how does one mourn a loss—not of a war but of a person? Her memorial would be an anti-monument, a black granite V-shaped wedge inserted into the ground of the Mall, cutting into that long stretch of grass between the (white) Lincoln Memorial and the (white) (and phallic) Washington Monument. The carefully chosen jury selected the work of this (then nameless) young college student as a “work of genius.” For one of the first times in public art, a totally abstract shape was selected as a winning design.

The Memorial was simple: it was just a black wall inscribed with names, perfectly fulfilling the requirements of the design. There was nothing political about her design, which was covered with the names of each of the fallen, listed in order of when they died, carved into the dark, polished mirrored surface. The announcement and the revelation of the winning design caused controversy and uproar. To a public, unaccustomed to abstract art, the Wall seemed “too Eastern” or “too Asian” in its aesthetic. To a public, accustomed to male artists, the Wall, with its thin granite slabs, seemed too delicate, anorexic and “feminine.” As opposed to phallic male monuments, rising high and proud, the V-shaped wall, which did not disturb the tranquility of the Mall, seemed hidden, tucked inside, like a vulva. Maya Lin had designed a modern day Book of the Dead. The black granite slabs opened at an apex, like the pages of a book: the story of the Viet Nam War written with the names of those who gave their lives for a lost cause.

The next post will describe and discuss The Wall itself.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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