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Earthly concern

Artist Maya Lin says her final memorial will be 'near and dear to my heart' -- a tribute to the ailing planet.

April 01, 2008|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — MAYA LIN has always had a deep feeling for the land. As a child, she roamed the leafy woods of the Appalachian foothills in southern Ohio, listening to the mating calls of the songbirds that filled the forest. Now Lin perceives a growing stillness, as the number of songbirds across America are decimated by habitat destruction.

The growing degradation of the natural world haunts Lin -- celebrated as the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the reinventor of the American memorial genre -- as she pulls together the plans for what she says will be her "last memorial."

The title of this work-in-progress, like many of the details, is evolving: Perhaps "What is Missing," perhaps simply "Missing." But the theme is clear: Lin's finale will grieve for the animals, birds and plants driven into extinction -- and warn of the urgency of acting now to halt the devastation.

Lin envisions it as a multisite chronicle, including photography and video, at places around the world and with a commemorative list of names -- this time the names of extinct species. It is to be launched with a memorial table on Earth Day in April 2009 commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which chose her design to include in its new building in Golden Gate Park, an academy spokeswoman said.

"Do the math, guys. Where do we want to be in 50 years? That's the question," she said at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego as she installed her latest exhibit in a cathedral-like gallery lighted by the afternoon sun.

"We're in the sixth-largest extinction in the Earth's history, and it's the only one caused by a single species," Lin said. "The top 10 songbirds we grew up with are in a 40% to 70% decline. Our oceans are being devastated by overfishing. The landscape we grew up with has been significantly diminished. I just want to bring attention to it and give people the idea that you can do something about it."

At 48, Lin might seem young to hold the status of eminence grise of memorials, a position of gravitas that began when her design for the Veterans Memorial was chosen while she was 21 and a student at Yale. She has become so associated with monuments that when terrorists attacked on 9/11, a flood of faxes cascaded into her Soho studio asking her to prepare a memorial sketch.

" 'What is Missing,' " Lin said, "will close the series for me. It's so near and dear to my heart. This is the only one I've instigated," she said. "I want the last one to be so personal, something I care so deeply about."

She holds out a long rectangular black book that is a working prototype of the project. " 'Missing,' the last memorial, will focus attention on species and places that have gone extinct or will most likely disappear, within our lifetime," an opening page reads. Funding, she hopes, will come from environmentally concerned donors.

As Lin spoke, she crouched on the floor of the museum's Jacobs building, using a little hammer to delicately chisel a small, winding crack she spotted in the concrete floor. When the show opened last weekend, this accidental crack was transformed into a shimmering silver river running through her "Systematic Landscapes," an exhibit that brings indoors her environmental sculptures -- and the spiritual meditations that fuel them.

Dressed in jeans and a sleeveless brown T-shirt, her brown eyes direct and focused, she was unpretentious, friendly and open. But she spoke intensely of the existential forces driving her "last memorial."

"I digress from the art show," she half-apologized, gesturing to the monumental landscapes being meticulously assembled around her. "But for me it's all the same. I've always used nature and the environment as my inspiration."

She spends much of her time creating outdoor environmental sculptures, like a winding serpent mound in Sweden modeled on a famous ancient snake mound in Ohio.

But she has attained international recognition -- and at time, fierce opposition -- for spare, elegant monuments whose emotional punch uncoils as viewers follow the march of history. There are the names of the American dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was initially opposed by critics who wanted the work to personify fallen veterans with statues. At her Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., water flows over the names of murdered civil rights activists. The Yale Women's Table chronicles the days when female students audited as "silent listeners."

Shift to activism

Lin would like her new memorial to have global reach. She wants to use the Internet, interactive media and a book to tell people specific steps they can take to spare the environment, like avoiding plastic bags, insisting on shade-grown coffee or joining a program to "adopt" an endangered species and help protect it. She wants to unveil donated corporate billboards in locations such as Times Square, with 20-minute videos with images of endangered species and places.

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