Sunday, October 16, 2011

...about public art: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Each day this week, I'm looking at my list of top public artworks, and the traits they share that make them great.

Minimalism • Vietnam Veterans Memorial • Washington. D.C. • Sculptor: Maya Lin

I saw it as a teenager, on my first trip to D.C., and with no direct connection to the Vietnam War, it moved me immensely, and stuck distinctly with me to this day. From the air, it is a boomerang in the grass around it, or perhaps the wings of a stealth bomber. From the ground, at arms length, it is what creator Maya Lin calls “A book outdoors,” a reference to the decidedly non-monumental scale of the typesetting of the list of names of the dead. It is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the list of the lost hangs above and around you, represented solely with tiny type on an understated yet overwhelming run of granite.

It was a risk, this bare and elegant design to honor such a fraught moment in our history. On paper, it’s no wonder the piece had its doubters, its execution so deceptively simple. But in real life, this slice in the earth makes its point with cutting simplicity, perhaps more than any other in this city of striking monuments.

It uses its site to great effect, and although highly sensitive to the controversy of its subject and design selection, it is not without understated political statement about perhaps the most controversial and divisive national act of aggression since the Civil War: as you move further into the monument, you get deeper and deeper underground… and two landmarks of D.C., the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monuments, disappear, the sounds of the city are muffled. It is a stop-you-in-your-tracks statement about isolation and abandonment that uses site and sense to great effect.

Ms. Lin’s design revolutionized public monument design, and many pieces since, like the World Trade Center waterfalls, owe much to her spare design. She in turn owes much to the simple, staggering power of engraved dates and names on a single tombstone. Here, together, this tragically combined American family speaks to what Ms. Lin stated as “The universal loss of people in a war.”

It is proof that a minimal hand can paint the most striking picture. It is also living proof that a memorial can indeed succeed, if not soar, in the realm of Art.

Earlier posts:

Interactivity: Cloud Gate
Subtlety: The High Line
Community: WaterFire
Playfulness: Crown Fountain

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