In these works I seek to create an intimate dialogue with the viewer, to allow a place of contemplation, sometimes an incorporation of history, always a reliance on time, memory, a passage or journey.
— Maya Lin, Boundaries
Memorials “work.” Not just in the simple sense of being “right” or “appropriate” to their topic, but also in the sense that they perform a kind of functional task for individuals, communities and nations. They’re media: they tell stories, effect meaning, and sometimes resolve historical tensions and contradictions. Memorials work with things and they work on things — conceptual, abstract things like “duty,” “loss,” and “honor,” but also more concrete things like physical spaces (our landscapes and social environments) and peoples’ bodies (a memorial manipulates the body in space). In other words, they’re not just reified statues or constructs of steel, stone and brick; memorials are complex and active sites of meaning making.
It’s apparent early on in Frieda Lee Mock’s documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision that Lin gets all this — she understands what memorials can do and how they might do it. Winner of the 1995 Academy Award for feature length documentary, Mock’s film is, essentially, an exploration of the purpose, meaning, and construction of these personal and social objects. It’s a question answered through the voice and art of Lin: “I had to ask myself: What is a memorial’s purpose? Especially, what is a memorial’s purpose in the 20th Century?”
The film begins, appropriately enough, with Lin’s first, and certainly her most audacious (there was really nothing else like it at that point, at least in the U.S.) and controversial work, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A minimalist abstraction in a town filled with classical architecture and naturalistic statues, the work spawned intense controversy. Lin was vilified alternately as “young,” a “woman” who hadn’t served in the military, a possible “communist,” and a “gook.” Various sectors of the American public sphere — military veterans’ groups, politicians, as well as average citizens — came forward to publicly debate whether Lin’s work adequately or appropriately memorialized the US citizens who had lost their lives in what was the most disastrous and unpopular war in US history. This fact, that Lin’s design was fated to publicly represent, confront, and perhaps work through a profoundly negative US experience, made controversy almost inevitable.
Still, it’s a bit difficult today, over 20 years later and an “after the fact” understanding of the intense cathartic effect the Vietnam Memorial had (and continues to have), to grasp the level of antipathy driving the controversy or to believe that the piece almost didn’t get off the design sheets.
The arguments against Lin’s design centered primarily on its form and the manner in which it memorialized the dead Vietnam veterans. Some people wanted traditional statues. One Representative requested that the blocks of granite be white as opposed to black (injecting a peculiarly odd racist quality to the debate) and that they be above ground with a flag at the center point. Others correlated the decision to set the piece into the ground with an underlying and unspoken desire, on the part of Lin and the supporters of her proposal, to denigrate the memories of those who died in the war, to bury them literally and metaphorically.
Mock manages to capture the fear behind these various arguments — a fear, in the end, of the Memorial’s refusal to provide the intended viewer with an easy answer to the problems of the war. It is obvious, for example, that many were afraid of the way the piece “worked” — afraid that viewers, insufficiently “guided” and thus left to their own devices, would be led to the “wrong” conclusions about the war and the US dead listed (whatever those might be). The detractors wanted to supplement the work, invest it with obvious meaning. Thus they gravitated toward more “stable” symbolic representations, like the flag or the eventually included statues of three soldiers standing together, in answer to the abstractions of Lin’s work.
What is painfully clear is that detractors simply missed, willfully or otherwise, the point of Lin’s presentation: that it’s based upon the negotiation of presence and absence. The viewer is obviously there at the site of the memorial, you even see yourself reflected by the polished stone, but the persons being memorialized are both there and not there, present in name but completely absent in body (or physical representation, until the addition of the triadic soldier statue). This presence and absence is basic to memorials in general. But by eschewing the easy conventional props of the memorial industry, Lin’s piece pushes the problem of presence and absence to the foreground, making it the focal point.
The Memorial doesn’t deal in histrionics or heroics, merely (and entirely) humanity. As they walk along the Wall’s path, tracing the names etched into granite, viewers are made acutely aware of the fact that the people listed are irretrievably gone, irretrievably lost to the world, and thus its emotional impact. As Lin says at one point, she knew the piece would make people cry.
The remainder of Mock’s documentary deals with Lin’s post-Vietnam Veterans Memorial career. While quite interesting, this portion of the film lacks some of the impact of the first sequence. Partly, this is because the artistic, intellectual and emotional stakes at play in Lin’s future architectural endeavors are already laid-out in the Vietnam Memorial, and what occurs in the rest of the film is in effect a response to and development of what is mapped out at the beginning. But, it’s also partly because the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was such a watershed event in U.S. history. An event that until that time had been dealt with primarily in film, poetry, and fiction, the Vietnam War was suddenly inscribed in that most symbol-laden and politically charged of American social spaces, the National Mall.
Perhaps that’s why we’re brought back to the Vietnam Memorial throughout the rest of the film (for example, Mock shows Lin being emotionally thanked by veterans during a ceremony before the Wall). This isn’t a problem, but it does point to the primacy of the Vietnam Memorial in Lin’s work. In a sense, it’s a presence that she has to work through and around. As the “origin” point of her career, it defines her professionally and underwrites her subsequent architectural efforts — she’s forever Maya-Lin-of-Vietnam-Memorial-fame.
For her part, Mock’s film represents a Lin who is happy enough to grapple with this issue. She’s not afraid, for example, to reference elements of the Vietnam Memorial in subsequent works (she again uses etched words, dates, and names in polished stone for the Civil Rights Memorial and Women’s Table). At the same time, she branches out into other types of construction, employing other media (like bits of green glass formed into wave patterns in Ground Swell) and designing non-memorial spaces (like the Museum of African Art and the Open-Air Peace Chapel).
Ultimately, in Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Mock portrays Lin as a humane artist intent on creating humane spaces for both the dead and the living. It’s an important film today as Washington and New York struggle with the problem of creating appropriate spaces for people to deal with and reflect upon the events of September 11, 2001. Like the Vietnam War and its aftermath, “9/11” is both the culmination and beginning of a series of diverse though interconnected historical events.
It too has the feeling of a watershed moment. How we decide to represent these historical events will help define how we react politically, militarily, and culturally to those responsible, not only those who flew the planes or plotted the events, but the powers (Western and Middle Eastern alike) responsible for creating the social and economic climates which continue to produce such tragedy. Borrowing from Lin, we have to ask ourselves: What is a memorial’s purpose? What is the purpose of a memorial to and after 9/11?