During my visit to Maya Lin’s studio in Manhattan, the artist surprised me by stating that her primary focus was on the future, and that she is an optimist.

During my visit to Maya Lin’s studio in Manhattan, the artist surprised me by stating that her primary focus was on the future, and that she is an optimist. I did not expect such a positive outlook because Lin has distinguished herself as a designer of memorials that recount such sorrowful events as soldiers killed in battle in her Vietnam Memorial, or animals succumbing to environmental disruptions in the What Is Missing memorial. Memorials are shared memory repositories. Lin explained that she creates memorials so that people learn about the past, which affects change in the present, and ensures beneficial outcomes in the future. “My memorial serves as a springboard into the future. I am anticipating an improved state for the future….All we lack is the will. We can solve the climate change problem. Human population is not a problem; current agriculture is a problem, and current consumption patterns are a problem. What is Missing is a wake-up call and a call to action.”32

Lin’s strategy optimizes this effect. Instead of illustrating idealized conditions that have vanished, she represents the dismal states that currently prevail. In this manner the missing entity or condition is conjured within viewers’ minds where it is most likely to carry an emotional charge. As she says, this technique prevents “landscape amnesia”, whereby people don’t acknowledge what is missing because they have forgotten what was there. 

a. Lily Yeh’s The Genocide Memorial, a component of the Rwanda Healing Project, reverses Lin’s scenario in What is Missing. It not only attends directly to the past, it confronts the rampage of violence and destruction that occurred during the Rwanda genocide. Nonetheless, Yeh’s memorial, like Lin’s, is designed for its future effect. The Rwanda Healing Project supports economic initiatives in the present in the hope that they will lead to development and security in the future. Yeh comments, “We can move forward to our future only when we can fully understand and embrace our past.”33

Thus, Lin’s memorial depicts the current states of desolation, reminders of former states of beauty, vigor, and harmony. In contrast, Yeh’s memorial helps survivors move beyond their brutal past toward a future of beauty, vigor, and harmony.  Discuss how the physical form of each memorial advances each artist’s intention.

b. The memories that Red Earth awakens originated in Neolithic times, and may still linger in the unconscious minds of humans today. The ceremonies designed by these artists create the conditions for arousing states of being and forms of awareness that ceased long ago. The artists comment, “Ours was a ritualized action, a journey, but it was not in any way a relic from the past. The past gave it a resonance. We don’t know what Neolithic mythologies were, but it seems reasonable that they are imbedded in mythologies from the Iron Age, and then Celtic sagas, Irish myths, Bronze Age, Roman times.”34

Lin memorializes physical entities and conditions that are missing from current experience. In contrast, Red Earth memorializes psychological and spiritual conditions that are missing from current experience. Lin conveys this memorial through printed text and two-dimensional imagery that appear on billboards and on the internet. In contrast, Red Earth’s memorial took the form of a ceremony conducted by live performers situated in an ancient ritual site where it was subject to weather, season, and sun light. Discuss how the physical form of each memorial advances each artist’s intention. 

Consider that Lin has expanded the concept of a ‘memorial’ by amassing an enormous archive of information so that What Is Missing? can provide the next generation with a broad spectrum of memories to guide its journey into the future. This massive undertaking includes observations from ordinary people, scientists, researchers, activists, as well as historic memories from such renowned figures as Plato and Columbus. Lin explains that it will include “disasters, attempts to resolve, and successful achievements.”35  Furthermore, by evoking conditions that are projected for 2015 and 2050, this memorial encompasses multiple time frames. Finally, opportunities are being provided for people across the globe to access this material through networked web sites. Yet all this optimism is placed in context of today’s harsh realities. 

c. Compare What is Missing to the Ground Zero Memorial at the site of the World Trade Towers. 

GroundZero