The Earth is Calling

Though not a memorial, Maya Lin’s newest works pay homage to Einstein and the Dinky

By Ilene Dube | Photography courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

At the heart of the Lewis Center for the Arts complex on the Princeton University campus — just south of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads and Cargot Brasserie, the restaurant in the repurposed cargo shed of the old Dinky train — the earth undulates in wave-like craters.

Site plan courtesy of Maya Lin Studio

Like quirky hillocks with straight edges, they beckon a visitor of any age to climb to the top and roll down sideways, just as a child might. And I can’t help thinking that’s just what the earthwork’s artist, Maya Lin, hopes we’ll take away — not her name and bio as one of the most important artists working today, but rather a place to honor and connect with earth and grass.

The Princeton Line, as it’s called, will be joined by a second Maya Lin work commissioned by Princeton University Art Museum. Fifty or so feet away, a water table will be installed sometime in late 2018/early 2019. Made from jet mist granite with a base that will form an oblate spheroid, the fountain will be situated within a gravel plaza and appear to float above the ground. Concrete seating will edge the back.

The fountain’s veil of water is planned to be wispy as it falls from the 12-foot-long tabletop. The table’s elliptical shape was inspired by diagrammatic drawings of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The idea for the water weir is based on the black hole, and the jet mist granite, which has a white, almost starry patterning, is intended to “reflect the galaxy” — an allusion to the work of one-time Princeton resident and physicist Albert Einstein.

Princeton’s John McPhee served as yet another inspiration for Lin — his writings on the stratified layers of the earth were the basis for her wire-drawing in space. “I like to reveal things you might not be thinking of,” she says.

“Every water table needs a weir (a fence or dam placed in a body of water to divert or regulate its flow),” Lin said during a visit to the Princeton University campus in spring. Her earlier water tables are sited on the campuses of Yale and Brown; each has inscribed text. This water table is planned to be the most abstract of the three.

Lin considers both The Princeton Line and the water table to be in dialogue with one another, “an exploration of a drawing on an angled plane that walks you down a steep slope, and the more formal water table which returns the form to where it originated. Scott Burton’s piece Public Table was the inspiration for my very first water table, the Civil Rights Memorial — and now I can come full circle with this new work.”

Installation began in April. This is Lin’s first Earth Drawing in a public space in the United States — another of its type is the Eleven Minute Line (2004) at the Wanås Foundation in Knislinge, Sweden.

“By making a work in which she shapes and draws a line in the earth, together with the most abstract of her water tables to date, I am certain that Maya will make a lasting and engaging mark on our campus,” says Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward, who has known Lin since his days as director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where he served from 1998 to 2009 prior to coming to Princeton. It was there that Lin’s first Wave Field work was commissioned.

“When I first came to Princeton I thought [a work by Maya Lin] would be a great addition to the Campus Art Collection, and I reached out early in my tenure,” Steward recounts. “Her response was favorable,” although the first sites he’d pitched did not resonate with her. “Because she is passionate about the environment I thought the space in front of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment would appeal, but the site was too constrained for her,” he says. (That space was subsequently filled by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Uroda.) “When I showed her the site plans for the Lewis Center, she found the site more open.”

“When I first visited the campus I fell in love with that steep hill in an underutilized field,” Lin said of the location for The Princeton Line, thus titled because it is sited where the Dinky tracks once traversed the campus before it was moved 400 feet to make way for the Lewis Center, completed a year ago. It is also a play on the name of the line that connects Princeton to the transit world beyond. She says her pieces usually title themselves right before they are finished — the water table is yet to be named.

A 2016 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Lin first achieved national recognition for her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., while she was still an undergraduate at Yale. Lin received her bachelor of arts in 1981 and a master of arts in architecture, also from Yale, in 1986. Her design was chosen in a national competition, but went on to stir controversy. The starkly simple slab of polished black granite was inscribed with the 57,661 names of those who died in Vietnam, arranged chronologically by date of death. Since its completion, Americans have flocked to the site to grieve, to contemplate the consequences of war, and to heal.

“…the cost of war is these individuals,” she said. “And we have to remember them first.”

Lin’s body of work includes large-scale, site-specific installations; intimate studio artworks and memorials; houses, apartments, a library, a skating rink, a bakery, two chapels, and a museum; gardens and landscape architecture; and a line of furniture and clothing. Her 59 Words for Snow consists of thin layers of paper waxed over with encaustic.

She has questioned whether she is an artist who practices architecture or an architect who makes art. Frank Gehry, one of her professors at Yale, told her to forget about the distinction and just make things, according to a 2002 New Yorker profile of Lin.

She likes working on outdoor projects that are open to the public, where she can have greater impact than with buildings, where only a few can enter. She has used sonar to map the ocean floor and satellites to reveal things about the natural world, such as disappearing arctic ice.

Lin’s earthworks begin with a model, just as with buildings. When working on architectural projects, she told an audience on campus, there may be only slight modifications from the model, but with art, “you’re expected to morph the model and change it to fit the site.” For The Princeton Line, “the scale is human and playful, with the curves leading you up or down hill.” It is “unique to the terrain,” she says. “How can I talk to people through the curvature of the earth?”

The Princeton Line has been compared to Lin’s Storm King Wavefield (2007-8) at Storm King, the sculpture park in New York state. Viewed from above, the undulating swells of earth appear to naturally rise from and roll along the grassy terrain. Set against a backdrop formed by Schunnemunk Mountain to the west and the Hudson Highlands to the south and east, the seven nearly 400-foot-long waves, ranging in height from 10 to 15 feet, recall the experience of being at sea. Lin’s earlier wave fields are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Miami, Florida.

Storm King Wavefield was an environmental reclamation project, a sustainable reworking of the former gravel pit that supplied material for the New York State Thruway. When Storm King was founded in 1960, a significant portion of its grounds consisted of large stores of gravel in surrounding fields. The ravaged landscape was in turn landscaped and shaped anew by the very same gravel.

This back story excited Lin. Working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which sanctioned and supported the reclamation of the site, Lin collaborated with landscape architects to utilize the existing gravel and topsoil at the site.

Lin has been “extremely concerned about the environment” since growing up when the Clean Air Act was taking shape, and Ohio’s Lake Erie caught fire, leading to petitions to ban steel traps. Lin’s parents, having escaped Communist China, settled in Athens, Ohio, near the Appalachians.

The project that she is devoting herself to these days — what she terms her “last memorial” — is “What is Missing?” It is a “global memorial to the planet” and includes a book, materials in scientific institutions, and a website. Whatismissing.net traces the ecological history of the planet and is intended as a global effort to help protect and restore nature. Looking at “species that have or will go extinct; that we will never know because we destroyed their habitats before we ever could get to know them,” it “emphasizes that by protecting and restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands, we can both reduce carbon emissions and protect species and habitat. ‘What is Missing?’ is a wakeup call and a call to action, showing us how to reimagine our relationship to the natural world and showcasing how we could live in ways that balance our needs with the needs of the planet.”

“One-third of our soil is missing,” Lin notes. “Because of the songbirds in decline, our sound landscape is missing. How can we protect it if we don’t realize it is missing? As an artist, how can I get us to rethink what we’re doing? More gas is spent every year refueling lawn equipment than was lost in the Exxon Valdez.”

Sustainable grasses were used for Storm King Wavefield, but sod was employed for The Princeton Line. “In order for the heavy clay soil to hold its form over time, it was supplemented with soil amendments, and to keep it from eroding, we had to use sod instead of seeding it,” says Steward. Lin gave the nod to sod because “she is a pragmatist as well as an idealist.”

The Princeton Line is surrounded by newly planted trees to frame the site, using native plants where possible. Lighting, also designed by Lin, illuminates the scape for nighttime visitors.

Her mantra is “Through conservation, nature comes back,” she says. “You have to give people hope.”

Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward and Maya Lin/Princeton University Art Museum

At press time, The Princeton Line was barricaded with orange construction fencing as the sod settled, but in fall it is expected that visitors can enter and lounge in the bowl shapes, as if a chair, or enjoy outdoor performances in the “natural” amphitheater.

With the art museum’s plans for expansion — an architect is expected to be announced this month — the museum is making plans for a two-or-more-year closure. A new building will replace the existing building. “A simple addition is not possible,” says Steward. “We are landlocked.” He is exploring different ways of keeping the museum “open” off site, such as the Titus Kaphar installation in front of Maclean House did last winter.

“We have to try diverse approaches to show we are still able to put interesting art in front of the public,” he says. Maya Lin’s The Princeton Line and to-be-named water table, along with the entire Campus Collection, are yet other ways to keep the museum in the public eye.