Maya Lin’s “Systematic Landscapes”

I visited the Maya Lin exhibit yesterday (December 30th, actually). Her (preoccupation) with landscapes was the exhibit’s defining motif. The Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, a minimalist space constructed from poured concrete, large panes of glass, and dense heavy-gauge steel mesh covering many of the walls, seemed like a perfect venue for her work. There was a sense of music and serenity. I guess maybe that could be said for almost any landscape in the natural, geologic sense. Maybe the horizon serves as a baseline for the shapes carved out in reference to it. There is also the element of movement that I’m aware of in any landscape. The sweep of the eye. In the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, there is little if any variation from the horizontal baseline. In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the steep slopes obscure that horizon almost completely. I wonder if that’s why people have the impulse to get to the top of the mountain? Maybe there’s a need to be connected to that horizon that the base of the mountains don’t offer. I’m probably projecting here. Maybe the horizon is just something that I need. But that still doesn’t explain why so many other people, people from all different types of landscapes, want to climb to the top of mountains. It’s one thing to say that it’s the attraction of the challenge; but that might be an over-simplification. That explanation doesn’t explain the attraction of the experience of looking out over the horizon. Maybe it’s not the horizon. Maybe it’s the shifted sense of scale. The awareness of just how huge the world really is. Being at the top of a mountain might just be one of those rare occasions where a person can take in so much of it at once.

Okay, so I’ve digressed. Back to the Maya Lin exhibit. The first piece in the exhibit is a series of stainless steel push-pins stuck into a blank, white wall. The pins are gathered together in a dense, wandering line in the shape of a river. Based on the construction of much of the rest of the exhibit, it’s quite likely that the pins recreate precisely (to scale) the route of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Each of the pins protruded almost its full length from the clean white wall. Because each of the pins stood out so straight from the wall, the heads formed another layer of the shape outlined on the wall itself. Furthermore, the pins cast shadows along the wall creating yet another form of representation. What at first appeared to be a relatively simple structure, pins on a wall, becomes something much more complex and engaging. So many ways of simultaneously representing the rivers. The pins arranged so closely together formed almost a little forest of pins. Like trees or grasses along the rivers’ banks. So there is the layer formed by the heads of the pins. The layer extruded along the length of the pins. The shape defined where the pins meet the wall. The layer cast as the pins’ shadow by the overhead lights. So simple and so complex. Masterful.

Eventually, I’d also like to comment on a few more pieces in this exhibit including the three-dimensional representation of the water volumes of various lakes, the wire landscape hung as one of the rooms’ ceilings, the mountain landscape carved into sections, etc.

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