Maya Lin: A River Is a Drawing
New YorkHudson River Museum
October 12, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Last fall, the United Nations issued a grave pronouncement: If we don’t act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we risk crossing the point of no return by 2020. It’s a sobering alarm, and one that doesn’t sit lightly. But now ask yourself: if you’re just hearing the news, how likely are you to change your life—not tomorrow, or in some dimly conjured future, but right now, this afternoon? If you’re honest, the answer is probably not very. For there’s something about the human mind that founders in the face of facts, that automatically ascribes to them an otherness that puts them safely over there. What we seem to need, and perhaps what we’re all waiting for, is for the facts to become so personal, so visceral, so deeply a part of ourselves, that we can ignore them no more than we can a raw flesh wound.
In Maya Lin’s current show at the Hudson River Museum, this tension between fact and feeling becomes a powerful thematic force in an exhibition otherwise intentioned. Guest curated by Miwako Tezuka, the show is both an appreciation of the river for which the museum is named and, more broadly, a plea for greater awareness about the urgency of climate change. A committed environmentalist, Lin has long made this her cri de coeur, and here we see her at her most didactic. But alongside all the explanatory texts and laminated placards, the sensibility for which she’s known speaks a language altogether different: one of understatement, subtlety, rich discursive silence. The difference is striking, and one can’t but feel a dissonance. Curiously, it’s a dissonance that diminishes both the work and the message—and one that raises a timely issue for an age awash in political art.
First, there’s the silence. In the museum’s lobby, a long wall of shimmering silver stills the mind and rouses the senses. One of Lin’s “Pin Rivers”—pieces made of thousands of tiny pins pierced into the wall—this work shows us the Hudson and its dense network of tributaries: a hovering mass of intricate filaments. Lin’s largest from the series to date, Pin River – Hudson (2018) might also be her most beautiful. From a distance, the pins’ shadows bathe the whole in a cloud of softness, turning it into a gently breathing organism both formidable and fragile. From close up, the tiny tributaries become veins and capillaries, the swollen river a surging artery. Someplace deeper than thought, we make the connection: how very like us, these bodies of flowing oxygen.
Such moments of private insight are not what await us, however, in the museum’s main space. Here, under a massive lattice-like structure that hangs over the atrium, a semi-circle of stools invites viewers to sit, each one furnished with an educational placard. From the text we learn that the piece above is a topographical representation of the Hudson Bight, a large underwater canyon carved into the earth during the last Ice Age. It’s an impressive piece, but denuded of mystery it loses its charge; its meaning is no longer ours to imagine. Similarly with Folding the Hudson (2018), a sprawling installation of glass marbles that winds through an adjacent room. Crawling from floor to ceiling and back again, the river envelops us in winding tentacles of glistening green. Immersed within, we might have had a felt experience of our relationship to nature—of our living inside it, that is, rather than on top. But we’ve been told it’s the Hudson folded over like a map, and the diagram we’ve been given has us finding locations along its course. The remaining works (there are a total of twelve) weave a similar path between the strident appeal to reason and the visceral nudge toward deeper truth.
But it’s in the show’s final room that the dissonance reaches its highest pitch. Part of Lin’s larger What is Missing project (what she calls her last memorial), a dark, cavernous room replete with bean bags primes the mind for contemplation. Circling the room is a moving stream of projected text chronicling the history of habitat changes in and around the Hudson. You read for a while, dutifully informing yourself. But something else is going on, something you can only fully apprehend if you stop reading and close your eyes. It’s a cacophony of wildlife sounds: frogs croaking, birds singing, animals you can’t identify making sounds you’ve never heard—all of them in concert as if perfectly on cue. Incomprehensibly dense and throbbing with life, it’s a conversation you’d never want to interrupt, or insert yourself into. It’s also one, you note, in which no single animal dominates. The experience is so beautiful and the moment so profound that you don’t want to open your eyes again. When you finally come back into a rectangle of facts, the latter now seems so superfluous it becomes an absurdity. An absurdity and an impertinence—for the animals are speaking. And so, of course, is the art.
Like that of many political artists working today, Lin’s sincerity and passion are commendable. But any artist who moves into overt pedagogy betrays a certain lack of faith in the power of visual art. For isn’t it precisely what art does that discursive reason can’t that makes it valuable in the first place? We’re besieged with facts. What we long for is to be moved, and in this case moved so deeply that somewhere in the murky regions of our deepest consciousness, perhaps without our even knowing it, our bodies will register a shift—the shift that will finally, after so many words have been uttered and so much ink has been spilled, be the difference that makes the difference. If anyone is poised to give us exactly this, it is Lin. It's 2019. May we all heed the call.