A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Maya Lin

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BILL MOYERS: What about the Women's Table at Yale?

MAYA LIN: The Women's Table at Yale was even a trickier one because it's not a memorial. The then-President Benno Schmidt called up and said, "Could you do a sculpture at Yale commemorating women at Yale?" What does that mean?

I had no idea. That one, I sat on for over a year, reading about co-education at Yale, women at Yale, the history of gender at Yale. And all I remember having gone there for seven years is that every little stained-glass image, every sculpture, every statue was a man.

Because until 1968, Yale had been a male world.

As I start reading, I'm thinking it's not about when Yale officially went co-ed. Because women had been at Yale since the 1700s technically, but we were never known.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean technically?

MAYA LIN: There was a daughter of one of the professors who was sitting in on a class even very, very early on. I came across a phrase that actually sent chills down my spine. Women were allowed to sit in on classes in the 1800s, and they were called "silent listeners."

BILL MOYERS: Silent listeners?

MAYA LIN: And I thought that was the most atrocious (LAUGHS) attitude about women. And then you find out that when Yale officially went co-ed undergraduate, it went co-ed with a very tough quota system. Because the idea is, we still have to graduate X number of Yale men. Then, we'll let a few other women in.

But again, it was a quota system. And the quota system is fairly-- it was highly contested. And then they stopped that. It was about numbers. Did we count? How many were there of us? And little by little, I one day woke up and I wrote a little spiral of numbers.

The Vietnam has a closed time frame. It begins and ends at the apex.
For the Civil Rights Memorial, there's a gap between 1954, you walk around clockwise-- and you end in '68. But there's a gap, signifying that we've caught the Civil Rights era, but the quote really deals with the future. It's open-ended. Commemorating women at Yale, we have a beginning, but certainly, it's ongoing. So I thought of a spiral.
I was looking at one of Edward Tufte's book, ENVISIONING INFORMATION. He had a beautiful spiral of numbers. He's a professor at Yale.

I called him up, and both Professor Tufte and his wife Inge Druckrey, who's in the graphics department, were unbelievably helpful in helping me come up with the spiral number, how to lay it out, everything. They were great. And I chose an old-fashioned text because it's what the Yale college blue book, the course book, was printed on. So, any Yalie coming back will recognize that text. And it's a spiral starting with a group of zeros signifying there were no women at Yale for a very, very long time. And then the first women that officially were enrolled were enrolled in the graduate school of art, because Mr. Street, who donated the money to build the first art building, Street Hall, had two daughters. And his condition in a way, in building Street Hall was that his daughters would go there. And I think the first class is 13 painters in the school of art.

But the pieces are about history. And again, you can say it goes down to, "Can we make a history apolitical?" In all cases, I have just dealt with facts. But again, it's what facts you choose to portray that focus you. But it's always about giving to people information and letting them read into it what they will.

BILL MOYERS: And what about this? "Avalanche". This is so stunning.

This is one of my favorite sections in the book.

MAYA LIN: This is one of my favorite sculptures. I think I exist in three worlds. The monuments, really, which I think are the hybrids of art and architecture. Architecture is what I studied and trained in, and then what I basically was brought up with, which is art. My dad was Dean of Fine Arts. I grew up in an arts campus.

And of course, you never know, really, who you are. It's sort of self-discovery. All my art works deal with nature and the landscape. And with that piece, "Topographic Landscape", some people think it looks like water waves. Other people think it's like a sand dune.

Most of my pure sculptures are large-scale earth works, or they're studio sculptures that have been shown or exhibited. They're integrally related to seeing the land.

BILL MOYERS: I thought of this as the desert with the pyramid in the background. And I thought, "Well, that's too simple. That's too easy. (LAUGHTER) It must be something more than that."

MAYA LIN: It was never conscious. It's always about creating. Again, in art, I come out of more what you would call environmental installations.

So, even though that was a show called "Topologies", of which everything is based on landscape. Those pieces traveled to five different exhibits in different setups. And, say, in that photograph, the avalanche is in the background, the topographic landscape is in the foreground.

The avalanche is a glass sculpture, 14 tons of glass. At NYU, it was up against the window wall, so you could look into the back of it, but they're two separate pieces.

But the way in which they related to create what you would call environmental installation, so that the piece, as you walked through it, every single piece in the show was about landscape.

BILL MOYERS: So, did you know (UNINTEL) side they came from-- matching that and this--

MAYA LIN: No. I just made them. I'm planning my next show. And again, there'll be three large-scale earth works or landscape works. One, you walk under. One, you walk on. And the third one, you're gonna walk through. And they're in three different spaces. But it's again, how you experience the land.

BILL MOYERS: Another one of my favorites is the earth works sculpture in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tell me about that.

MAYA LIN: That one started out as a site-specific work. And it's an earth work. And it's a series of what looked like topiary that are rolling down a hill. It's in front of the Charlotte sports coliseum.

It was probably my breakthrough work, as far as getting past funereal architecture. (LAUGHS) I was doing that piece as I was doing the Civil Rights Memorial. Two things were happening. I was regaining my connection to the land. The Vietnam Memorial is an earth work. It's a cut in the land, polished the sides. But then Civil Rights was a very urban landscape. I was also working on a sculpture for Penn Station, which again was very urban. So, "Topo" was my first open, large-scale earth work site. And how I brought it back to, again, almost a drawing in the ground that then I sculpted.

It starts with two balls that are on top and then pushing the earth around. So literally, if you would carve that in wood and dropped a marble down it, the marble would roll til it hits the hole in one, which is an amphitheater at the bottom of the hill. So, it's a game being played out.

Because again, I would say my works are very site-specific. But it's not just the physical site. It's the contextual site. So, for that one, it's a sports coliseum. I wanted to play with a game. So, we called it Topo. I worked with a landscape architect named [Henry Arnold].

BILL MOYERS: "Topo", meaning?

MAYA LIN: "Topo", just playful, like topo, like a little kids' game.

BILL MOYERS: Topography?

MAYA LIN: Topography, of course. (LAUGHTER) One of my favorite pieces is a piece called "Wave Field".

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I got that here.

MAYA LIN: Again, it's in front of an aerospace engineering building.

BILL MOYERS: Makes me wanna lie down there.

MAYA LIN: And kids do.


MAYA LIN: --until the sprinklers come up.

BILL MOYERS: Which campus is that on?

MAYA LIN: It's on the University of Michigan north campus, and the building surrounding two sides of it is the teachers aerospace and engineering.

So, of course, being site-specific, it's not just: here I've got a 200-foot square piece of earth, go put something in it. I wanted to connect it to what was going on behind the building.

BILL MOYERS: And that is?

MAYA LIN: Aerospace engineering. So, I started talking to the scientists, talking to the professors, and they started giving me books on aerodynamics, fluid dynamics. And one of the books I came across was this repetitive water wave.

And I said, "That's the piece." Now, of course I presented it to the engineers. And they were going, "Well, that belongs over in naval engineering. It doesn't belong over here." (LAUGHTER) I always now say, when I go mine for information, because I never know what I'm gonna find, that probably nothing I get from you will be used in the art work. Just, can I ask a lot of questions? Otherwise, especially scientists, they tend to get very specific and think you're gonna do it very literally. And I think art is about the non-literal connection. It's that one thing doesn't correlate directly to the other, or it's too obvious. It's too easy, and in a way, if it can be understood and explained, it will not have its own life.

BILL MOYERS: But with all due respect, it isn't just intuition. I mean, you work hard at this. You went out there. You studied.


BILL MOYERS: You asked. You recorded.

MAYA LIN: Always. I always research something for three months, a year, six months. I think I do it because it's an incubation period. And it's also because I come from a family of academics.

And I guess I miss school. So, this is my way of being a little bit of a student. I never become an expert. And you can tell. The minute I'm done with a project, I forget almost immediately, facts. And then I go onto the next one. It's funny.

But it's for that moment that for the two or three years I'm submersed in it. But again, say, for the Civil Rights Memorial, I didn't choose who's name goes on it. I am not a historian. I would never want to assume to be that. So, the Southern Poverty Law Center, as I was developing the art work for a year, they developed the team of historians and experts who would put together the history, choose the events, the people, and then I worked with them on how it was set.

I wanted text that was factual but wouldn't be sensationalized. You were dealing with a lot of deaths. And again, how do you factually put that forth without, again, sensationalizing it?

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