Grand Rapids, Michigan
From the meteoric launch of her artistic career in 1981 to the present, Maya Lin has harnessed an elegantly Minimalist vocabulary to convey potent messages, frequently using her work to demonstrate humanity’s impact on the natural environment. “Flow,” Lin’s recent exhibition, was devoted to sculptural works addressing the need to be more mindful of water. (The show coincided with the 20th anniversary of Ecliptic, her outdoor work inspired by water in its three states, which has helped to revitalize a public space in Grand Rapids.) As the Flint water crisis and the recurrent Great Lakes algae blooms have demonstrated, clean water can’t be taken for granted, even in Michigan, a state surrounded by some of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.
“Flow” featured a cross-section of new and recent works in a variety of media, including an encaustic topographical rendering of the retreating Laurentide Ice Shelf, cast silver renderings of the Great Lakes (both American and Canadian), and an immersive particleboard installation showing the topography of Blue Lake Pass in the Rocky Mountains. Lin is thoughtfully intentional with her materials; silver, metal, and encaustic all melt as they heat up, so these works subtly reference global warming, past and present—retreating glaciers, after all, created most of the geographical forms depicted in these works. Lin carved directly into the wall for her topographical representation of New York’s Finger Lakes, mimicking the glacial action that scoured out the land approximately two million years ago.
While most of the works in “Flow” represented specific geographical sites, some were deliberately disorienting. Anyone who has grown up in the Midwest will know the familiar image of the region’s five Great Lakes, which, as Lin observes, have “become almost a logo.” But The Traces Left Behind (From the Great Bear Lake to the Great Lakes) offered a shock of unrecognition. The ensemble consists of cast silver sculptures of all the North American Great Lakes, which were formed by the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet, and it demonstrates that the panoramic sweep of the Great Lakes extends far into the Canadian Northwest Territories at a longitude well above Anchorage, Alaska. Suddenly, it became arrestingly clear that Michigan’s five Great Lakes are merely a small part of a vast chain of massive water bodies, some bearing names many of us have never heard before. Displayed in the gallery without any reference to national, state, or provincial borders, The Traces Left Behind offered subtle proof that natural forces supersede human constructs.
Among the site-specific works on view was a drawing of the Grand River Watershed, rendered in a pixelated fashion by thousands of pins inserted into the wall, the silver of their heads mimicking the flicker of light on water. When I asked Lin about the specific ecological issues informing this work, she volunteered that “part of me is going to present a watershed because watersheds are beautiful feathered forms, and also because I had no idea of the vastness of the reach of the watershed. The amount of agricultural runoff into our watersheds is huge…the fertilizers that run into the Great Lakes cause the algae blooms. If we properly maintained lawns, we could go back to natural organics rather than burning the nitrogen out, which allows for little microbial action. And if we get the microbial action back, we can turn our lawns into carbon sinks.” In this and related works, including a recent pin rendering of the Mississippi Watershed and the crowdsourced What is Missing?, Lin seeks to raise awareness of local ecologies. “How can we protect it if we don’t even know when it’s gone?” she rhetorically asks. As an example, she cited the actual Grand Rapids themselves, wryly observing, “I think it’s ironic that you’ve got a town named after rapids that were completely straightened.”
Not all of Lin’s works are as understated as those featured in “Flow.” What is Missing?, an ongoing informational project that documents the alarming rapidity of ecological changes driven by human activity, delivers an emphatically clear message: our current exploitation of natural resources is unsustainable. By contrast, even the exhibition’s title work took a veiled approach. Composed of thousands of two-by-fours, cut and arranged to appear like undulating ocean waves (visually rhyming with Lin’s Wave Fields), this abstract installation didn’t reference any particular geographical region, and in this regard, it was the show’s outlier. But even the geographically specific works were allusive, something which Lin readily admitted: “I don’t preach through my artwork. The art is there to present a way of looking at the planet and getting you to think, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea that the Grand River had such an extensive watershed.’ But I’m not going to say much more.”
In “Flow,” Lin let nature speak for itself. Perhaps there’s a resonance simply in the disorienting (re)presentation of familiar geographical features, which reminds us that while the current political climate is increasingly introspective (“America First”), the reality of climate change knows no borders, and the forces of nature, with or without human interference, will continue to operate with utter disregard for our political and economic preferences.