by Fernando Quintero
For Maya Lin, coming up with the words to express her winning design entry for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in 1982 was harder than creating the work itself.
At a lecture titled "Grounds For Remembering" at Wheeler Hall March 6, Lin explained in words and color slides her thoughts behind what has become the best known, most widely visited work of contemporary art in the United States.
The large monument in Washington, D.C., with the names of the thousands of soldiers killed during the Vietnam War inscribed in stone is a powerful testament to the consequences of war.
"When I was asked to submit the written part of my proposal, I had a really hard time," said Lin, recalling her days as an architecture major at Yale University. "I became concerned with what the purpose of the Vietnam memorial was. It was important to me to be extremely honest; not be concerned with the politics of war, but the results. I wanted to bring to the visitor a concrete realization of the great loss."
Given the politically conservative times when the design was proposed in a country bitterly divided by war, English Professor Stephen Greenblatt commented how "wildly improbable the Vietnam War Memorial is."
"In addition, you had a young architecture student who was a woman and Asian-American using public money," said Greenblatt, who joined Lin at the lecture along with history professors Tom Laqueur and Andrew Barshay, and professor of architecture Stanley Saitowitz. "The memorial is one of the most powerful works of art. It is the center of our cult of remembrance. It represents one of those works of art that by all odds could not have been built," said Greenblatt.
In 1986, Lin completed her master of architecture, having worked with sculptor Richard Serra and architect Frank Gehry. She has designed two other commemorative sculptures: the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and a sculptural tribute to women at Yale University. Her architectural projects include the Museum for African Art in New York (with architect David Hotson).
Many critics view Lin's sculptures as essentially self contained objects and her architecture as "narrative, experiential spaces that require a human presence to be complete."
Lin, who was also the featured speaker at the Townsend Center for the Humanities Avenali Lecture in February, said she considers her work "memorials, not monuments. I make places, not objects."
"The Vietnam memorial is a place where something happens within the viewer. It's like reading a book. I purposely had the names etched ragged right on each panel to look like a page from a book," Lin said.
"I also wanted remembering the past relevant to the present. Some people wanted me to put the names in alphabetical order. I wanted them in chronological order so that a veteran could find his time within the panel. It's like a thread of life."