When is art a disaster? Sculptor Maya Lin explores – Art21 video

Chinese American sculptor Maya Lin is an unusual environmental artist: dogged but not dogmatic.  

A passionate activist, Lin uses her art to speak about the roots of environmental disasters. The power of her work lies in its restraint and subtlety. The artist is exhibiting at the Parrish Art Museum until 13 October 2014. 

Maya Lin in an exclusive video interview by Art21 (video still).

Maya Lin in ‘SHORT: Maya Lin: New York’, 2013, video still. Image courtesy Art21.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.


Maya Lin first came to prominence in 1981 at the age of just 21 when she beat over 1400 other applicants in a public competition to design the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Today, she is known for her super scale landscape sculptures – including a 30-tonne wood sculpture entitled 2 x 4 Landscape (2008), and an 84-foot cast of the Colorado river made from reclaimed silver in 2009.

Watch Art21′s video of Maya Lin on Youtube.com

Maya Lin’s studio on video

In a video published by Art21, a ten year old nonprofit contemporary art video platform, Maya Lin takes the viewer into her studio. She introduces a body of work inspired by waterways and flooding, which was shown in Pace Gallery New York’s “Here and There” show in 2013.

“But I don’t want to be preachy. I want to reveal aspects of the natural world that people don’t normally think about”, Lin says. 

Avidly interested in the intersection of art, technology and the environment, the artist explains her message, inspiration and her art-making process.

It is a moral issue. One species absolutely does not have the right to overwhelm the planet.

Lin hopes that her work will stimulate not just action but also changes in legislation.

Art depicting water: destructive or precious?

The artist was inspired by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which has been described as the second costliest hurricane in the history of the United States. The billion dollar storm wrought havoc when it hit New York City on 29 October 2012, flooding tunnels and subways and cutting off power. Lin told The New York Times:

I think Sandy was a real wake-up call. Nature is going to reach out whether you notice it or not. It’s going to come and say hello.

One of the highlights of her work, the intriguing three-dimensional sculptures of rivers created out of pins is shown in the video. They map the flood waters caused by the hurricane. Lin wants these works to remind people of and help connect them to the historical topography of Manhattan, which is a network of swamps and oyster beds which, Lin claims, formed a natural defence against storms in its original state before human intervention.

Describing water as “a very precious object”, the artist states:

We don’t want to break down the basic ecosystem. If we forget what used to be then we’ve lost the ability to really be sensitive to our surroundings.

'SHORT: Maya Lin: New York, 2013, video by Art21.

Video still from ‘SHORT: Maya Lin: New York’, 2013. Image courtesy Art21.

Why Maya Lin is outstanding

Throughout her career, Lin has been dogged yet sober in her efforts to raise awareness. She prefers for her art to communicate facts rather than high emotions.

Several series of works, from Systematic Landscapes to Bodies of Water and Recycled Landscapes, culminated in an ambitious project entitled “What is Missing?” in 2009 that draws attention to what the artist called the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’. The home page of the project’s website represents a world map of every natural disaster caused by humankind. Imagined as the last memorial of Maya Lin, the project combines science and art in the name of environmental protection.

The artist has served as an advisor on sustainable energy use and as a Board Member of the National Resources Defence Council. President Barack Obama honoured her with the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

When art is a disaster

Maya Lin may be fervent about the environment, but she is in no way dogmatic. In her view, environmental disasters play second fiddle to the freedom of the artist.

Asked by The New York Times if she thinks raising environmental issues is a responsibility of the artist, she replied

I think art is personal to each artist, and so to me it is what my art always has been about. But that’s my choice as an artist. I don’t believe art necessarily has to be any one thing. In fact, if we all felt inclined to have to do that, I think it would be a disaster for art.

Many other artists are concerned with exploring how humans experience and impact their environment. Rina Barnejee’s installation A World Lost depicts a world before pollution. Season 4 of Art in the Twenty-First Century featured an episode entitled “Ecology”, in which artists Ursula von Rydingsvard and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle talked about their relationship to nature.

There are now so many artists and curators interested in the environment that a conference entitled the International Nature Art Curator’s Conference debuted in Korea in 2013.


This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Lauriane Roger-Li


Related Topics: art about the environment, mixed media, videos, activist art, architecture, women artists, New York

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