Saturday, November 22, 2014

What is Missing?

Still from Maya Lin’s video Unchopping a Tree

Acclaimed artist, architect, and designer Maya Lin (best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC) delivered the Oregon Humanities Center’s O’Fallon Memorial Lecture this past Thursday at the University of Oregon. I fully expected to be impressed by a review of Lin’s extraordinary oeuvre. What I and the many others who packed the EMU Ballroom didn’t expect was to come away both shaken and moved by what she has described as her latest and final memorial project: What is Missing? 

What is Missing? blends art and science to raise awareness about the ongoing loss of biodiversity and natural habitats. It is a multi-media, multi-site memorial that aims to build awareness about species loss and highlight what scientists and environmental groups throughout the world are doing to protect species and habitats. Maya Lin’s intent is to bring the magnitude of the sixth extinction to our attention through artistic means. 

Many of us are fully aware that we’re on the brink of a sixth mass extinction on par with the five others that have punctuated our planet’s history. I fear we may have already passed the tipping point insofar as large-scale climate change (and its concomitant and exponential acceleration of habitat and species loss) is concerned. It is beyond tragic. What is Missing? alerts us about the very real immediacy of the crisis and how catastrophic and dreadful its impacts will be if we choose to do nothing. This shouldn’t be necessary, and yet there I was in the audience shocked again by the magnitude of the calamity unfolding before us. It’s far too easy for me—for all of us—to ignore or forget our responsibilities to protect our planet when our day-to-day concerns are so distracting. 

What is Missing? debuted in 2009. Since then Lin has continuously been working on the ambitious undertaking in the form of multiple permanent and temporary art installations, more than 70 videos, and the What is Missing? interactive website(1). Among other things, she uses her work to emphasize the importance of preventing deforestation as a way of reducing emissions and protecting animals and habitat. She engages her audience through interactive media, asking visitors who view (and listen to) her work to contribute their own stories of loss and or recovery in the natural world.

I’m surprised I wasn’t previously aware of Maya Lin’s What is Missing? project. I like to think I’m pretty well-informed when it comes to the activities of the most notable thought-leaders in the design universe but I obviously wasn’t paying attention to what may prove to be her magnum opus. 

Lin did not devote the entirety of the lecture to What is Missing? She initially offered a brisk overview of her career’s work, glossing over her most familiar pieces (such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, the Women’s Table at Yale University, and the Wave Field at the University of Michigan). She did dedicate more time to the Confluence Project, perhaps because of the relative proximity of that series of outdoor installations and interpretive artworks to Eugene. Of these, I found the yet-to-be completed Celilo Park site the most intriguing, in part because of my familiarity with its important story(2)
Celilo Falls, before the falls were flooded by The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Maya Lin is obviously brilliant. She’s been blessed with opportunities to deliver her messages in ways that are impactful, perspective-altering, and thought-provoking. She is the rare personification of a total artist, equally at home with a variety of media at all scales. What is Missing? may be her “last” memorial but I fully expect she’ll never finish it, at least without the confidence that humankind has taken heed of its message. 
Click the link below for a video of Maya Lin’s complete November 20 lecture:

(1)    Curiously, the What is Missing? website appears to be inactive at the moment.

(2)    Years ago, my wife worked as an archaeologist on digs in the vicinity of where the now-lost Celilo Falls once served as a gathering place for thousands of Native Americans and an important salmon fishery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And in most cases those trees are completely wasted, just burned up where they are felled to simply clear the land to grow more coffee or corn. And those crops just deplete the delicate land. This is a crime against nature.