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This is Man’s Work

Maya Lin and her global effort to inspire and inform about biodiversity and habitat loss

    More than 15 million hectares of tropical forest, an area larger than the state of New York, are cut down every year, resulting in the release of millions of tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Deforestation accounts for almost 20 percent of all the climate-changing carbon emissions, surpassing emissions from all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. By the end of this century, many of the world’s forests could be lost, along with countless important plants and animal species. Driven by mankind, this mass extinction of forests could also be reversed by human action.
     In recent years, artist and architect Maya Lin (b. 1959), known for creating transcendent and innovative public monuments, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has undertaken an evolving and involving life- long project that she considers her last memorial. In collaboration with institutions, artists, scientists and environmental groups, the project focuses on man’s relationship to the environment, an important issue for Lin since childhood. She has been constructing a multi-sited artwork to draw global attention to the crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss, calling the project, “What is Missing?” The innovative effort aims to inform and inspire, presenting virtual and physical works that blend science with art to formulate a wake-up call for viewers. ‘‘What is Missing?’’ is emerging in various art mediums and places simultaneously, through sculpture, video, sound installation, hand-held electronics, printed material and an interactive website.
     On September 17, 2009, Lin unveiled the first piece in her project at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Entitled “Listening Cone,” the 8’6”x10’8”x 19’2” cast bronze cone, lined with reclaimed redwood, is set as a megaphone, calling on viewers to look and listen. Sitting inside the cone, we hear the sounds of extinct and vanishing animals, such as songbirds and golden toads. Looking into the wide end of the cone, one can view a screen showing more than 40 short, looped videos of endangered and threatened species and their declining habitats. The videos run on a 20-minute cycle—the average time a form of wildlife is lost on earth.
    Lin has spent years of research preparing for the project. For one of the videos, Cornell University’s bioacoustics researcher Christopher W. Clark provided acoustical data for a scene that illustrates how loud the ocean is for sonar-dependent marine animals. Other videos employ sounds and moving images of the ivory-billed woodpecker and prairie chickens, which Lin had obtained from audio and video recordings at Cornell’s Macaulay Library, the world’s largest archive of animal sounds and video. Lin’s permanent sculpture on the grounds of the California Academy of Sciences’ new Renzo Piano, environmentally sensitive building imparts an aesthetic experience that intimately invites us to participate in a critical dialogue with nature.
     A traveling piece, “The Empty Room,” opened last September at China’s Beijing Center for the Arts. The room is dark, emanating with sounds that include singing whales and chirping birds. Hidden ground projectors cast images of an endangered or threatened animal onto rectangular pieces of optic Plexiglas that can be held like trays by the visitors. The visitors can hold their glass with white gloves and “catch” and watch as introductions to species fade in and out. Apes, dolphins, polar bears and others are shown playing around and wandering. For Lin, the sound of the animals is a critical element. She designed the piece in a way that viewers do not see the animal before hearing it or reading about it. Sounds in the dark heighten one’s senses, and once the images are “caught,” the viewer is already involved.
     Last December, in Copenhagen during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, Lin showed a new work from “What is Missing?” A three-minute video entitled “Unchopping a Tree” reflected on what would happen if deforestation would take place in our favorite city parks. Lin’s dramatic and biting piece with music by Brian Eno can be viewed on YouTube. “What is Missing?” is officially launching on Earth Day (April 22), 2010, with a five-minute video on biodiversity loss and what can be done about it. The video will be screened on a billboard in Times Square in New York. More information is available on www.whatismissing.net. Maya Lin believes that if we act, we can catch two birds with one tree.
     The Arts Club of Chicago, located at 201 E. Ontario, is currently exhibiting 11 works by Maya Lin. The pieces, dated from 2006 through 2010, were made with sustainable and recycled elements and explore notions of landscape and geologic phenomena. Waves, rivers, mountains and seas are cast, drawn on the wall and installed on the floor, illustrating Lin’s unique process for seeing and experiencing our environment. The exhibition runs through April 23.

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue