Mirror, Mirror

When the Queen in Snow White asks her mirror, who is the fairest one of all, she’s not looking for the truth. When Alice tumbles through the looking glass, the world she enters is nothing like our own. Maya Lin is an artist that excels in the art of mirrors, whether it’s a piece of polished black granite or an undulating field of grass. She wants to show us that a mirror can work both ways.

a black mirror

Vietnam Memorial mirror
By Hu Totya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

As a college senior, Lin won a blind competition to design the Vietnam Memorial. That was 1981. Speaking at the 35th anniversary of the opening of the Vietnam Memorial, Lin described her concept.

I had a simple impulse — to cut open the Earth and to polish the Earth’s open sides.

Now, the memorial is one of the most popular on the Mall. Back then, however, the very idea of a monument rankled. Some wanted to spend the money on veterans. Others hated the design: black, below ground and minimalist. The designer was controversial.

Some opponents simply did not like the fact that Lin was a young student, a woman, and of Asian descent; how in the world could she possibly know how to honor the service of the Vietnam veteran?

tables and water

Civil rights memorial
Civil Rights Memorial by Maya Lin. Photo by eliz.avery on flickr

Later, after grad school, Lin went on to design two more memorials. The first was the Civil Rights Memorial (1989). It stands across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. The names of martyrs to the civil rights movement are inscribed onto the inverted cone, continuously washed in water. The back wall bears the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Maya Lin women's table
Women’s Table by Maya Lin. Image source: https://visitorcenter.yale.edu/book/womens-table

The Women’s Table (1993) stands at Lin’s alma mater, Yale University. Her assignment was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of co-education at Yale. Lin chose to include the many years when Yale was a male bastion. The Women’s Table is a record of female enrollment (and non-enrollment) throughout the history of Yale.

art vs architecture

After these three commissions, Lin grew wary of being pigeonholed. She wanted a career as both artist and architect.

I think [these media are] tapping into very different aesthetics. I would say making architecture is like writing a novel. Making art is like writing a poem.

Lin has produced a rich and varied portfolio of work, ranging from asteroids composed of her children’s toys to private residences and massive earth works. In everything she does, she looks for the open-eyed wonder in herself in order to inspire that in others.

Get back to that child in all of us. Be curious. Be open to discovery. Can I get you to suspend disbelief? Can I get you to look at something and almost immediately get very connected to it?

In an interview with the New York Times, Lin described how that curiosity led her back to childhood and

my first love and interest, which is science and nature and the environment.

Those childhood passions have turned into very adult causes as Lin seeks ways to call attention to the environment.  For example, Pin River Yangtze (2015) is an installation consisting of 30,000 straight pins to represent the Yangtze River. The work adorns the lobby of the US Embassy in Beijing.

earth works

What Is Missing? (2012) is Lin’s multimedia, multi-form, multi-location memorial to our planet. We can travel through time and space to watch species and habitats disappear from our planet.

Lin’s stated goal is ambitious.

I am going to try to wake you up to things that are missing that you are not even aware are disappearing. […] If I can get you to look at something afresh, maybe you will pay closer attention.

In her series Wave Fields, Lin does just that. She uses land to create water. There are three works in this series.

The first, “Wave Field,” installed at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1995, is a 10,000-square-foot grouping of earthen mounds, the highest six feet, their shapes based on those of scientifically measured ocean waves. The second piece, “Flutter,” covers 30,000 square feet of a plot near the Federal Courthouse in Miami; the undulant shapes, child-size at three to four feet high, were inspired by the textures made in sand by the action of waves.

Her third Wave Field lives in Mountainville, New York where the water can reach heights of 15 feet. You can lose your way in all those waves, rethinking your relationship to the earth.


Lin is a jumble of talents, energies and passions. As she says herself:

My work balances between east and west, […] science and art.

Most of us would say that those qualities are mutually exclusive. You can’t be both. Or rather, it’s impossible to excel at both. Here’s where a term coined by nature writer Robert Macfarlane comes in handy: contronym. A word that has two meanings, each other’s reverse.

Lin is the product of her parents’ Eastern past and her own Western present. It’s what draws her toward borders, the crack between there and here, the place where the mirror falls.

I call it the boundary line, the line between opposites. I’m very drawn to that.

FNAV chop
Logo Museum of Chinese in America. Image source: http://www.mocanyc.org/

In 2009, Lin designed the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. She has described MOCA as a kind of home and a way to come to terms with her own Chinese heritage and that of her two daughters.

The Journey Wall in the MOCA lobby is a testimony to the diversity of the Chinese-American experience. Different times, coming from all over China and settling throughout the United States. Each bronze tile represents a different family story, each one unique.

Those tiles are not as highly polished as the black marble mirror of the Vietnam Memorial. That monument cleaved the land in two so that a country might know itself and heal. The bronze tiles of the Journey Wall form a mirror, too. Shiny enough for us to see ourselves in their stories.