Art review: Maya Lin combines sculpture, environmental research

| Publication: SF Gate | Author: Christian L. Frock

Recently 400,000 people took to the streets for the People’s Climate March, in anticipation of a climate change summit at the United Nations in New York. For anyone who still needs convincing, “Art/Act: Maya Lin,” on view at the Brower Center, addresses the crisis with work that digs into the Bay Area’s fragile resources.

Know that this is not a conventional art exhibition, but more like an immersive sketchbook of ideas. Further, the Brower Center presents an unusual gallery; it is essentially a lobby displaying extraordinary art by Lin, an American legend best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., whose larger body of work is about environmentalism. On Wednesday, Lin was the recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. The $300,000 prize recognizes individuals who have “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

What Lin’s art does well at the Brower Center is frame local resources within global concerns by combining Lin’s sculptures with environmental research drawn from the artist’s recent online initiative.

The focus is an evolving Web-based work, determined by Lin to be her final memorial, titled “What is Missing?” ( It presents stories, films and audio on ecological threats, such as habitat loss. Viewers may contribute by using the gallery computers, but given the transitory nature of the space, it seems unlikely that many will. I was inclined to look at the sculptures on-site and surf the Web later at home, and I am probably not alone in this impulse. But if an exhibition forces us to consider the artist’s ideas long after we’ve left the building, it is still a success, lobby or not.

Insight into work

Viewed as a whole, the show offers great insight into the artist’s present-day work. Lin is tackling the Earth’s fragile temporality; as with her famed Vietnam Memorial wall, the work continues to attempt to mark the preciousness of what we’ve lost and can’t replace.

The website features a map of the world pinpointed with live links; the initial audio sounds like a rain forest. The site matches Lin’s sculptures visually: clean, minimal, modern.

It is also loaded with information. The Brower Center invited Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books to contribute local environmental history, including historical journal entries that depict the abundance of nature in the Bay Area — this is presented as wall text punctuated by Lin sculptures about local water resources.

The website is useful in many sections, with tips about making less environmental impact. (Did you know it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat?) Many sections, however, promise to be updated “Fall 2013.” I had to double-check the current year — yep, it’s 2014 — to fully grasp the oversight. This typo or neglected update is oddly sloppy, and it jars with Lin’s sculptural precision.

Web-based works, as with any public art, have terms of upkeep. Nothing says futility like falling out of date online. Given the swiftness of the Internet, it is a challenge to maintain relevance and we’ve become too impatient, as a viewing body, to tolerate anything other than state of the art. Just as there is nothing sloppy about Lin’s sculptures, the website — as an extension of her objects — should be fully resolved (what isn’t should be hidden until it is). Lin’s challenge is to create a digital monument that will stand the test of time, at least as well as her other works, if for no other reason than the critical points it raises.

Context for understanding

The sculptures offer a glimpse into her techniques while tying the ideas on view to larger works or series. “Maquette for Where the Land Meets the Sea” (2008) is a wire model for a sculpture at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, based on terrain near the Golden Gate Bridge. Two others include “Silver San Francisco Bay” (2012), a sculpture of the bay and various waterways cast from recycled silver, and “Pin River — Tuolumne” (2008), a “drawing” of the critical resource flowing from the Sierra Nevada, comprised of steel pins. Each injects the text-heavy show with quiet gravitas and reminders of what is at stake.

Lin’s environmentally concerned artwork provides a new context for understanding the ripple effects of California’s water crisis in terms of the global situation. “Art/Act: Maya Lin” positions viewers to accept accountability and reminds us, to borrow from the People’s Climate March, there is no Planet B.

Christian L. Frock is an independent writer who writes about art and public life. E-mail: Twitter: @invisiblevenue

Art/Act: Maya Lin: On view through Feb. 4. Mon – Fri 9 a. m.-5 p. m., Sun 10 a. m.-1 p. m. David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way , Berkeley. (510) 809-0900,

(original article)