When Maya Lin (American, b. 1959) created “Storm King Wavefield” in 2009, she was in sync with the mores of late 1960s artists including Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson, each of them prominent in the Earthworks or Land Art movement. Lin’s “Wavefield” is an undulating terrain of grasses rolling across an eleven-acre site within the five hundred-acre sculpture park in Mountainville, New York. Because the scale of that project was vast, because it prodded visitors into physically confronting the landscape and because of her use of natural materials to sculpt the work, Lin updated Earthworks with contemporary meaning and accessible siting (compared to Land Art projects often placed in remote locales in the American West).
Yet simultaneous to these outsize sculptural gestures in the landscape, Lin has pushed her work beyond the formal means of twentieth-century Earthworks into twenty-first century environmental activism. “Smithson and his non-sites were extremely influential,” she explained recently. “The connection between actual landscapes and a drawing or mapping that then brings that landscape inside” is Lin’s current focus.
Her work, now on view in Here and There, at Pace gallery venues in New York and London, is a new level of sculptural inquiry where sinuous groupings of straight pins outline the contours of maps. She began the series of pin rivers in 2006. Lin has regularly selected common materials to create sculpture based on the landscape: hardware store wire, fir or hemlock 2 x 4 boards, and straight pins have all found a place in her projects. But her straight pins have a heft and density that belie those in your grandmother’s sewing box. “The pins are custom made for me to be a certain weight and length,” she said in describing the chosen material for her pin rivers.
When studying the wall reliefs, viewers must fathom the contemporary risk Lin is outlining. When she plots the site and charts geographical issues, she is mapping metaphor: how the fallout of a heavy-handed human species has caused a global environmental dilemma. River by river, with scholarly devotion and a humanist’s concern, Lin has studied the exploitation of waterways and the challenges to the ecosystem. In one wall relief, Pin River Sandy, the artist maps the estuaries, inlets and rivers which became devastating floodplains during last fall’s Hurricane Sandy. Another pin map, Crossing Midtown, delineates the flow of two midtown Manhattan creeks (first identified on a seventeenth-century map) and comments on their disappearance – at least at today’s street level. With a bird’s eye view, Lin has also imagined American waterways in recycled silver.
Pins have long been used to pinpoint exact locations in cartographic exercises, for nautical refinement, in home study, or for strategic military simulation and training. Here, the pins purpose is inverted as they become the medium rather than the accessory affixed to paper or parchment. “I chose the pins because of the ability to describe and capture the dispersion limits of the waterways,” she explained. “…sometimes more ethereal and ambiguous than the simple linear flow of water, but at times much more diffuse in character.”
When she creates sculpture that is not as physically massive as the geographical terrain she maps or the memorials or Earthworks she previously created, Lin’s work is concentrated. In a way, through these subtle maps which chart changes in geographic boundaries due to natural or man-made disasters, her work is a wake-up call to viewers. “Water has been a major focus in my work, with rivers in particular being of great interest. They are vital for us and every other species,” Lin wrote recently in the catalogue accompanying her Pace exhibition. “Our largest cities have grown around significant rivers in every corner of the world, and each has gone through significant environmental changes because of us.” Lin’s new work – using a material as ordinary as straight pins – will focus viewers on their extraordinary obligation to the environment.