Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2022
Maya Lin: Mappings
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, January 28–August 7, 2022
Maya Lin, The Polar Ice Caps—From the North to the South Poles, 2017 (photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, provided by Pace Gallery)

In The Power of Maps (1992), cartographer Denis Wood writes, “The world we take for granted—the real world—is made like this, out of the accumulated thought and labor of the past. It is presented to us on the platter of the map, presented, that is, made present, so that whatever invisible, unattainable, erasable past or future can become part of our living . . . now . . . here” (7). This accumulation of the past made relevant to those in the present is examined in Maya Lin’s current exhibition at Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). 

Maya LinMappings foregrounds the artist’s decades-long concern with humans’ impact on the environment, which she explores through her own cartographic process that centers the act of mapping and considers what maps reveal or forecast. Lin herself has declared, “I see myself as a cartographer of sorts. I travel the world in maps and atlases and satellite views of the earth’s terrain” (Maya Lin: A River Is a Drawing, 10). This modestly sized exhibition of twenty-one small-scale artworks from the 2000s, which the artist calls “studio sculptures” or “mute objects,” coincides with the reopening of Smith’s venerable Neilson Library, reimagined and designed by Lin and located near SCMA (Maya Lin: Boundaries, 8:02). Mappings is organized into four sections: Land, Water, Ice, and Climate Change. Situated in a single gallery on the museum’s first floor, Lin’s works move visitors through representations of well-known bodies of water and terrain, taking the forms of floating or floor-based sculptures, wall-based topographies composed of wire, pins, or encaustic, incised maps, and drawings. 

Lin frequently says that her work “originates from a simple desire to make people aware of their surroundings” and her artistic and architectural practices as seen in Lin’s Neilson Library encompasses this statement (Boundaries, 2:03). The stately brick building was made in Italian Renaissance Revival style in 1909. Lin maintained the original structure while replacing the 1962 and 1982 renovations (which made the library difficult to use) with “jewel box” wings. Walking through the space, I felt a sense of lightness and expansiveness with subtle yet organic shifts between the historic and new structures. For example, the first-floor café and second floor study room, both located in the new North Wing, have glass dividing walls so visitors can see into the other spaces, including the main atrium situated in the original 1909 building, creating a visually unified experience. Aligning with the exhibition’s conceptual scope, Lin’s design addresses environmental concerns: as Smith’s press release states, the renewed library utilizes 50 percent less energy than traditional libraries and the wings use bird-friendly glass. But a pivotal facet of the design—with ample glass throughout and a grand oculus in the central atrium to let natural light in—is the ability to look out onto the campus grounds (conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted), connecting the library with the surrounding environment.

Like the Neilson Library renovations, Mappings reflects Lin’s emphasis on an integrative experience with the world around us but with a larger goal in mind. A vitrine in the Land section includes a series Lin began in 2006 in which the artist carved into the pages of old Rand McNally atlases. It is a potent material choice, as maps are inherently political. Speaking of Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who erased sovereign Native American nations in drawing their maps, Denis Wood contends that maps work “by serving interests” and take “on the appearance of a window through which the world was seen… as it really was” for the mapmakers’ own geopolitical aims (Power of Maps, 1, 2; emphasis Wood’s). Addressing Wood’s interpretation, Lin’s atlas works counter the carving up of land in the name of empire. A wall label states that Lin’s atlas works slice “through the borders of nations to create new topologies, destroying the illusion of isolation.” Indeed, Lin’s map works softly refuse mapmaking as a colonial tool. Her chiseled, sculpted maps become topographies in themselves that coalesce distinct and distant geographies, unearthing the layers beneath and implicating that the depicted lands and their geopolitical contexts—historic, contemporary, and unseen—are intertwined. 

Subtlety abounds in Mappings, which is enhanced by the artist’s palette. Lin use of colors from nature (stone, water, wood) makes some work recede into the background. In the section focused on Ice, the wall reliefs 59 Words for Snow and Before it Slips Away (both 2017), made of paperboard, encaustic, and aluminum, have peculiar, cellular forms. Although flat, visitors can see aggregated layers depicting the Arctic and Antarctic’s melting ice sheets that raise sea levels and ravage wildlife habitats, negatively impacting ecosystems across the globe. Because they resemble the color of snow, the works nearly disappear into the gallery walls. In an era of information saturation, where influencers, corporations, media pundits, and politicians scream for our attention, what is subtlety’s role in a time of crisis? In addition to the climate emergency, we are still amid the shifting landscape of a global pandemic, ongoing invasions, and ideological polarization. However, Lin seems to understand quietude not as passive but as an active positionality as suggested by 52 Ways to See the Earth and 52 Ways to See the Ocean (both 2008). Each composed of fifty-two slats of Richlite, a sustainable by-product of wood, they illustrate the topography of earth and its oceans. Although the works are not interactive, wall labels suggest that one could theoretically move each slat to the opposite side of the sculpture, changing the configuration. Moving one slat every week for a calendar year would return the topographic image to its original state. Climate change is irreversible, but in 52 Ways Lin insists we have the agency to enact change no matter how incremental.

In the center of the gallery, three wooden sculptures of disappearing bodies of water—the Black, Caspian, and Red seas—sit on pedestals. These forms depict underwater topographies invisible from above made from stacked sheets of Baltic birch plywood on top of one another, gradually increasing in size upward. The wood anchors their solidity and presence. Bodies of Water: Caspian Sea (2006) extends into space as if reaching out to us, having us bear witness to the lands under these transmutable, diminishing waters. Rather than demand, Lin invites viewers to actively participate in tackling the climate crisis. The artist’s “simple desire” to make people aware of their surroundings and the straightforward manner of the exhibition’s didactic materials strike a tone of seeming objectivity rather than interpretation. This correlates to Lin’s position that her work is not political but allows viewers to reach their own conclusions (Boundaries, 2:03).

In my own curatorial practice, I aim to write didactic materials that provide information to foster multiple and expanded understandings of an artwork while allowing visitors to reach their own conclusions. This can be difficult to balance. In this vein, Mappings overlooks the explicit acknowledgment of an essential fact in its written materials: that the seas Bodies of Water depicts are critical economic and geopolitical sites. Russia has recently attempted to extend its hold over the Black Sea, a crucial economic conduit in the Mediterranean; for decades, the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea have battled over its gas and oil reserves; and the Red Sea remains a vital trade route. As nations pursue control of such natural resources for trade, energy sources, or military theater, the seas continue to dwindle. Lin’s works may allude to the futility of conflict over these waters, but museum visitors will be hard-pressed to find a point of view on the complicated, enduring entanglement of politics and the environment. Throughout the exhibition, I felt conflicted, desiring on the one hand an overt ideological perspective and an outlet to express frustration over governmental and societal refusal of climate change. On the other hand, I did appreciate the exhibition’s multiple entry points and open-endedness.

Some may point to Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1993) and wonder about the lack of a clear political tone in Mappings. However, Lin imagined the memorial as part of the earth, thereby implying that our political lives are part of our natural order (Boundaries, 2:07). Consequently, Lin’s cartography serves to reveal the deleterious consequences in our quest to control the environment rather than seeing ourselves as part of it (notwithstanding the Indigenous communities that have long understood this). It gives form to the extant lands and waters still in need of our attention. My internal conflict remains unresolved, but the dialogue this conflict engenders has productive potential. Considering Lin’s artistic approach and especially the exhibition’s context in an academic setting, Mappings becomes an arena to hold conversations around pressing environmental concerns for a new generation that will experience further effects of climate change.

The exhibition culminates in Lin’s final, ongoing “memorial” and arguably her greatest mapping project to date, What Is Missing? This virtual web platform coalesces her previous and ongoing research to raise awareness of species and habitat loss (“Here and There,” 14). It composes a narrative of earth’s life and maps the past, present, and future of our planet. In addition to spotlighting global efforts to address climate change, What Is Missing? is a call to action. Here and throughout Mappings, Lin traces the environment’s historical past, which encompasses our prior actions (or lack thereof), in order to understand our present and its influences on the future. She asks us to critically reflect, examine, and engage in an ongoing process to look after our planet and the interconnected species that inhabit it. Lin articulates a statement of fact: it is a necessity—now an urgency—to care for earth and for one another. It remains to be seen if and when we collectively choose to recognize this.

Jessica Hong
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Toledo Museum of Art