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Observations on “A History of Water”

This post of observations on the current exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art, was submitted by my colleagues. I hope you enjoy it and go to OMArt to see the exhibit in person.


Raymond Martinot

By Richard Reep and Yulia Tikhinova

In the contemporary art scene, they don’t get much bigger than Maya Lin. Lin became widely known – while still an undergraduate architecture student at Yale – for winning the competition for the Vietnam War memorial, in Washington DC (1981). Her anti-celebratory monument inspired heated debate at the time, but has long been acknowledged as a turning point in the history of this building type.  More recently, she’s become a powerful voice in the sustainability movement with her What Is Missing? Foundation.  Ms. Lin’s current exhibit at OMA is an excellent opportunity to follow her journey along this fascinating path.

“Maya Lin: History of Water” celebrates the beauty of water while, at the same time, it confronts us with our dependency on this life source.  We spoke with Ms. Lin after her talk at OMA, and spent some time looking at the show together.

Ms. Lin’s diminutive stature belies a tiger-like fierceness in her pursuit of sustainability.  “Was I too heavy?” she asked right after her talk, which shook the Central Florida audience to its roots.  “I hope that I wasn’t a downer!” she wryly asked, and helped herself to a chocolate bar on the table.  “My message is important,” she said as she munched, “but you gotta have a sense of humor.”   A few days later, on a gorgeous Florida afternoon, we returned to the museum to look at her art installation.

YT As a woman and a feminist, I see in “2×4 Landscape” female forms and sensibilities. Its voluptuous shapes are heavy with the budding life inside them.  Water itself is the domain of women: we wash laundry, we bath, and, in many cultures, we are responsible for finding (and hauling!) water. This wave feels decidedly feminine.

The tension between the materials employed (masculine construction lumber), and the forms into which they have been shaped by Ms. Lin (feminine curves), challenges the viewers’ perception of male and female attributes.

RR Men see water differently; we build ships to ride upon it, and claim it for emperors and kings.  However, I cannot help but see Lin’s work through the eyes of an architect.   Except for some maps, which bear the touch of her actual hand, these are all construction projects she designed.  Lin didn’t get on the floor and bang all the 2x4s together herself.

This is an architect sending us messages inside this museum.  If you look at 2×4 Landscape, it feels a little male to me.  The rise in the center is an object.  It is made of grillions of individual studs fit together in a precise way, like little soldiers.

YT Her Pin Rivers have a feminine delicacy.  “Pin Rivers” embrace the duality of Lins’ practice. The look is soft because of the shadows the pins create on the walls. But the pins stuck in the wall are both brutal and cerebral. It seems that Lin is always juggling two sides of her personality, one, strong and male as an architect; the other, soft and delicate (Asian?), as an artist.

RR I see a certain male principle at work here, too.  For one thing, they pixilate flowing water.  Land, which is normally considered object, is here represented as a void.  And then there’s the hammering of all these nails–

YTPins, Richard.  They’re pins.

RR OK, Pins into the wall.  Yet the result of all this testosterone is a very soft, almost ethereal presence.  They’re like fur when you stand back.

YT Don’t touch them.

Raymond Martinot

Raymond Martinot

RR Doh, OK. Now, on the floor is Lin’s love of science as a foundation for her art.  The surface of the earth, with water subtracted, becomes fascinating tiny topologies.  The urge to caress these is strong, and if you think about what they are, it gives one empathy for our earth.  Yet the marble is a very hard substance.

YT These archetypal shapes – circle, line, spiral – evoke ancient monuments. They remind me of Richard Long, who said “I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times.”

In this room we also see her first silver lakes, made of recycled silver.

RR Here, the hardness goes away completely, and these are almost pretty.  They highlight an elaborately nuanced edge, and there is a serene sense of beauty to them.

YT Here, we actually agree. These sculptures attached to the wall attached are design/decorative objects. I could imagine wearing them as an oversize brooch for a sci-fi dinner party.

RR That would be quite a conversation piece, Yulia.  I see her sense of humor also.  “Silver Niagra” is actually a huge map of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.  There’s about a whisker’s gap between the two pieces – and that’s where Niagra Falls actually is.  All that gigantic power and noise is represented by a non-object.

YT And that’s also her feminism coming through, as well.  The power and noise is a very masculine thing, and here it’s completely negated.

Now, “Bouvet Island” is the final crescendo of the “History of Water”, an underwater landscape rendered by a transparent volume of black metal mesh. The shadows add an important dimension to this installation, which is, like the others, both embracing and disorienting; clear and confusing.

RR Are you above or below?  Are you large or small?  You enter a disorientated state.  Is this intentional?  It’s a sly trick, one to throw you off balance.  And it’s an interesting segue into the video she made, entitled “What is Missing”, which is an elegy for the earth’s lost species.

Raymond Martinot

Raymond Martinot

YT Lin’s non-profit platform “What is Missing” focuses on the mass extinction of species and features more than 75 videos, scores of audio recordings of birds and animals. Lin calls it a last monument. and asks to contribute your story.

RR Her journey is, without a doubt, one of the most important journeys of our time, a quest to document the current mass extinction.  Even if you’re new to the appreciation of contemporary art, her work has impact.  OMA should be applauded for bringing this show to Orlando; it shows we are growing up and participating in the conversation.

YT kind of like this conversation, Richard.  It’s been a great way to seek insight into her work.  This past year, she received the Medal of the Arts from the U.S. State Department and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for outstanding contributions to the beauty of the world. She is unique as an internationally recognized architect for ability to operate on the shifting borderline between fine art and architecture.

Authors’ note:  Lin’s quest is an open one; you too can come to the museum and tell the future what’s gone.

“A History of Water” Through May 10, 2015, $8 Admission

Orlando Museum of Art, 2416 N. Mills Ave., Orlando, FL 32803


3 full critical reviews can be read in the Orlando Weekly, on their Arts and Culture pages:

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