Maya Lin Concludes Convocation Series

Alexandra Post

Artist and architect Maya Lin came to Oberlin on Tuesday to deliver the final convocation lecture for the semester. While Lin is best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., her talk covered a wide range of work, demonstrating her strong vision and high level of productivity.

Lin began by describing herself as a “tripod” because she works in three major areas: art, architecture, and memorials. She structured her lecture around the three categories alongside photographs of her work.

The first arm of Lin’s tripod, artwork, can be broken down into three categories: large-scale outdoor sculptures, museum installations and interior exhibition spaces. Her outdoor work plays with the ambiguity of natural forms like waves and hills. By manipulating the earth and other environmental materials, Lin creates landscapes that physically could not occur, but still feel integrated into their surroundings.

The theme of natural forms continues into Lin’s indoor installations. In one series, Lin cast the topographic courses of different rivers in precious metals. In another, she found different ways to construct hills within the space of the museum.

“What happens when you build a hill inside a museum?” Lin asked the audience. “People take their shoes off and have lunch on it.”

Lin went through many examples of her work, which revealed her constant desire to expose the viewer to natural elements uncommonly experienced by the public. Things like underwater mountain ranges, river systems that run through caves and waterways that once existed in major cities like New York populate her work.

Lin spent little time talking about her architecture. She showed photographs of the biomedical research building in Cambridge that she designed to resemble bone structure, her work on the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan and several private houses that emphasize their landscape around them. These examples made apparent Lin’s consistent interest in relating her structures to the concepts of time and memory, as well as exploring how natural locations influence her work.

In the final moments of her talk, Lin spoke about the memorials she designed. She briefly described her older works — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery and the Women’s Table at Yale University. When talking about her famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she simply showed a photograph of a geode cut in half.

“This is a geode,” Lin said. She flipped to a picture of the memorial: “This is also a geode.”

It was evident that Lin was most interested in discussing her current project, “What is Missing.” The online project, found at, focuses on constructing a series of digital memorials to extinct species of plants and animals. Lin describes the project as consisting of multi-sided memorials that change forms using scientific data to create art about extinction, biodiversity and habitat-loss. Much like her previous work, the online memorials incorporate maps, charting and memories.

Though “What is Missing” suggests a grim forecast for life on Earth, the beauty and grace in how it is presented fights against its bleak message to inspire and motivate, rather than depress. In this way, the memorial is a logical culmination of Lin’s work which, as she demonstrated throughout the evening, seeks to reveal that which we don’t often see: the delicate issues of history, memory and nature.