Maya Lin: Bodies Of Water at Storm King Art Center
May 9th through November 15th, 2009
Journeying to Maya Lin’s Wavefield—Storm King’s Living Artwork
The Storm King Art Center is a five hundred acre sculpture park located in Mountainville NY, fifty-five miles outside New York City. The park, still relatively unique half a century after its founding, acquires new artists and works under a curtain of obscurity. Even for a resident of New York City, it is immensely difficult to stay current with the openings, closings, comings, and goings of too many interesting exhibitions, and it is nearly impossible to find the energy to wonder what might be happening elsewhere in the state. Despite this, the reputation of the architect/artist Maya Lin has caused Storm King to resurface this summer, in local interviews and reviews that promote the center as a destination for travel, recreation, and the arts. The intermittent pattern of re-appearances that Storm King makes on the radar of artists and art viewers is dictated by the number of years it takes the art center to commission, and the artist to complete, a new sculptural work. Storm King is not, then, the forgotten stepchild of the New York City art scene, but more the rare Hollywood celebrity who holds out for that really substantial film, and who reemerges unexpectedly after a long absence with a great work to offer viewers. Maya Lin’s newest artwork, the completion of her triptych of site-specific sculptures entitled The Wavefields, is Storm King’s latest blockbuster.
Storm King was founded originally in 1960 by its current chairman Peter Stern to showcase Hudson River painters, but coincided with the postwar movement of artists experimenting with scale. Minimalists like Richard Serra were creating works of massive size and weight that exceeded the boundaries of the museum and the safety of the traditional sculpture garden. Storm King, with great foresight, adapted its mission to adopt these displaced artworks. For three or more decades, Storm King’s landscape was designed around the sculptures themselves, a concept derived from Robert Smithson, who believed artwork should not be made to fit within a set container such as the white museum cube. Storm King created, instead, a setting specially for the park’s artworks. While there was not necessarily a conceptual link between Storm King’s landscape and the abstract sculptures, the park still achieved a satisfying aesthetic collaboration through landscaping.
Beginning in the 1990’s, however, Storm King’s additions show how drastically artists like Maya Lin have changed the relationship between landscape, nature, and art. Lin has stated of her own interests, “my sculptures deal with naturally occurring phenomena, and they are embedded and very closely aligned with geology, landscape, and natural earth formations (Art 21, Season One).“ Some earlier acquisitions were also site-specific sculptures in which the landscape is both integrated and activated, such as Richard Serra’s Schunnemunk Fork from 1991, that references the mountains toward which the piece points, and earth artist Andy Goldsworthy’s The Wall that Went for a Walk, finished in 1998—a wall that vanishes into a lake, emerges out the other side, and winds its way through a preexisting forest of trees. Though these more recent artworks are separated by decades, Serra, Goldsworthy and Lin have changed Storm King’s landscape from being a setting for their artworks into their malleable material.
Lin’s Wavefield, covering eleven acres of land with seven rows of undulating hills, is nestled into a quiet valley, framed by distant trees and far off mountains. It is a multi-faceted piece that acts as a photographic image, an interactive sculpture, and, finally, as an architectural space. Its obvious pictorial image is simply waves of differing sizes and shapes. In a New York Times interview Lin recently said, “we all know what a water wave looks like, but I’m always trying to get you to take a different look at it.” Translating an image of liquid rippling water into the unfamiliar materiality of grass, dirt, flowers, and bugs, creates a pattern we associate with land rather than with water. Lin’s waves are set gracefully within nature, are made from nature, but could never have been created by nature. As a living, growing, and ever changing artwork, Wavefield is literally rooted into its valley but remains visually separated from it. As seen from above, this sculpture resembles land that has been cleared for development and landscaped awkwardly.
Descending down the hillside into rows reminiscent of cornfields erases notions of water or waves completely from the mind. The experience of wandering through Lin’s sculpture, regardless of the time of year, is extremely visceral and uncomfortable. Tramping down hillsides without many footpaths through tall grass coming just below the knee, watching grasshoppers leap away, hearing the sounds of bugs enmeshed deep within the grass, and feeling the hot sun beating from above, changes the sculpture from being something we look at to something we are a part of. Reaching the bottom of the valley and standing alongside or between massive “waves” of dirt and grass twelve to eighteen feet high, is a physical experience of foreign landmass.
Being in the piece, rather than above it, is like being too close to a pointillist painting and when choosing between dots and a recognizable image, viewers usually end up preferring an image to dots. The splotches of color we see when too close, however, serve to deconstruct what is seen from a distance. In the disorienting physical exercise of seeing Wavefield, lies Lin’s gritty purpose. She does not ask for her viewers to think about reinterpreting nature, she simply gives us the experience of doing it. Art and architecture, for Lin, are her ways of redesigning our interactions with landscape. It is work like Lin’s that foreshadows an encouraging future for Storm King, as it struggles to stay relevant. As long as the art center continues to draw artists as inventive and challenging as Maya Lin, people will continue to make the journey northward.
Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.