Maya Lin's Wall: A Tribute to Americans
As the sun reflects off the black granite wall, the Vietnam Veteran War Memorial casts a shadow of past selflessness and tragedy. "Never has a wall-a structure that divides-done so much to unite" (Howe 91). In 1981 a young girl named Maya Ying Lin was chosen, out of over one thousand submissions, to create a memorial that would soon become one of the most influential pieces of art in American history. Many soldier support groups and families were critical of Lin's monument and openly oppose it; however, there is a fallacy to their argument. The Vietnam Veteran War Memorial is a legitimate piece of art because of its success, despite the racial discrimination Lin has faced, and the poignant design of the wall.
According to Matthews, there are two halves of the wall, each reaching 246.75 feet long, with a combined length of 493.50 feet. Each segment is made of 70 panels. At their intersection, the highest point, they are 10.1 feet high and taper to a width of 8 inches at their extremities. The largest panels have 137 lines of names, and the smallest panels have but one line. There are five names on each line, with each of the names (and other words) being 0.53 inches high and 0.015 inches deep.
The Vietnam Veteran War Memorial serves as a remembrance of all the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, and their names are forever etched on its surface. It reminds us that over 58,000 American men and women left for Vietnam and never returned. Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a tribute to the dead and missing of the Vietnam War. America's involvement in the Vietnam War was a very controversial point in history and still remains a quiet secret that no one cares to speak of. When soldiers returned home after serving in Vietnam they were scorned, spit upon, and looked down on. Instead of receiving a hero's welcome, they received nothing at all. The country stood as a nation divided: split between those who supported the war and those who did not. It comes as no surprise that Maya Ying Lin's design for the wall endured as much controversy as the war itself.
Maya Ying Lin was raised in Athens, Ohio, where her parents were both prestigious professors at Ohio University. Her late father was Henry Lin, a ceramist and dean of fine arts. Her mother, Julia Lin, taught English literature but is now retired. Both Henry and Julia immigrated to the United States from China to escape Communism before Maya Lin was born. Early on, Lin displayed a talent for mathematics and art. She was at the top of her class and after high school was accepted to Yale University in Connecticut.
At Yale her professors told her that she could study either sculpture or architecture, but not both. Lin admits that while she was officially a student in the architecture school, she used to sneak over to the art school to take sculpture classes. In some cases, people will try too hard to focus on two fields of study, and their artwork will suffer; nevertheless, Lin used this situation to benefit her work and make it unique. In a recent interview she told a reporter, "There's an incredible suspicion that if you're interested in two different disciplines, then you treat them lightly ... but I could never choose." (GaleNet par. 3)
Maya Lin's design for the memorial was both a work of art and architectural genius; however, once the wall was chosen, she was discriminated against because of her Asian descent. Yet this is not objective criteria: there needs to be some alternative way to determine whether her design is legitimate or not. To submit a design for the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, there were six points:
It must honor the memory of those who fought and died in the Vietnam War, must be non-political, must not interfere with other memorials at the site, must be wheelchair accessible, must contain all the names of those killed in the war, and finally, the design must be of high artistic merit and be buildable, durable, and easy to maintain. (Marshall 7)
Maya Lin's design was chosen because she met all of the criteria asked of her; therefore, it is unfair that she be discriminated against because she is of a different ethnicity. Many people felt that the winning design was chosen because she was Asian, but in all actuality, the architects choosing the design do not know any of the artists' background; therefore, they could not have based their decision on her descent.
All entries were judged anonymously by a jury of eight internationally recognized artists and designers who had been selected by Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The winning design was chosen on May 1, 1981. The designs were displayed at an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base for the selection committee, in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. Each entry was identified by number only, to preserve the anonymity of their authors. (Shulgasser par. 3)
Maya Lin, although a Chinese girl, was not raised Chinese. She states, "My parents emigrated from China. I was not brought up bilingual; I was brought up 'white.' I think my parents made a choice, they wanted me to fit in, and so we fit in" (Krasner 7). So, why then, have Americans shunned her design based on her descent?
Many critics, veterans, veteran organizations, and public figures argued that Lin was too young and of the wrong nationality to be designing this "American" monument. Many Americans of that time did not see Asians as United States citizens. To these people, the definition and image of an American was someone who is white or of European descent. It is hard for any Asian American artist to see their works as an individual ability to create without anyone judging their work because of their ethnicity/race. With all the hardships and criticisms, the Vietnam Veteran Memorial is the most visited national park today. As a result, Maya Lin was one of the many Asian American artists who has struggled and overcome discrimination. In an interview in 2000, a reporter brought up an aspect in a book Maya Lin wrote in which she states that she is often mistaken for a "non-American," but she has become resigned to it. Her response was:
You know, it's funny when I go back to Athens, Ohio now. I was literally born and raised there. There's been a huge influx of foreign students in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years. So I can go into the bookstore that I actually worked in when I was a kid and the person behind the counter who's about half as young as me, will go, "Oh, your English is so good!" I don't quite know what to say. It's not that anyone means harm. This happens at some cocktail party when someone says 'Well, where are you from?' And I go, 'Oh, Ohio.' 'No, where are you really from?' And it's that inflection on the 'really' that is like, we're not allowed to be from here. (Krasner 7)
This demonstrates the mindset of how many critics viewed her: as a stereotype rather than an individual.
Further evidence of her discrimination for the design of the wall happened when a competitor received a larger reward for a design on a smaller scale. According to Pat Craig, an art instructor at Saddleback College, when Lin submitted her design for the wall, she received a prize of $21,000. When people started to realize that there was heated and at times ugly controversy over the design, and the memorial project was in danger of failing, the Memorial Fund directors decided to compromise: they added a statue and a flag to the memorial; however, Lin was not informed of the addition to her artwork. The statue would be a considerable distance away from Maya Lin's walls placed so that the integrity of her design would remain unchanged. Even so, Maya Lin became angry when she heard about the compromise and made her feelings known. She claimed the vets were "militaristic," and accused them of treating her like a child. She had been ignored on a matter that affected her design, and some believed that placing the statues by the memorial was like "drawing mustaches on other people's portraits."
The Memorial Fund hired sculptor Frederick Hart to create a statue depicting three servicemen in the Vietnam War. At one point, Lin remembers, "Hart looked me straight in the face and said, 'My statue is going to improve your memorial'" (Howe 96). Ironically, it was later disclosed that Hart had avoided the draft during the war and had been tear-gassed in a war protest that had turned violent. Hart's statue, as well as an American flag, were in place and dedicated in 1984. According to Craig, Frederick was rewarded over $200,000 in total earnings. He was paid ten times the amount that Lin received for a piece that was designed primarily to support the wall. Maya Lin, still furious because she believed her memorial had been compromised, refused to show up for the dedication of the statue. After all, the statue seemed to symbolize that the wall had no significant meaning, but does there need to be a statue of wounded soldiers to show emotion? Her design showed that you can touch a person through subtler means.
Many critics believed that the wall's design lacked proper symbolism toward the war that was fought. In retrospect however, Lin's monument evoked many emotions for those who have visited the wall. In an excerpt from Howe, he explains his visit to the wall:
The great black-granite chevron carved into the earth has 247-foot-long wings that rise from ground level at each end to ten feet at the apex, and as we slowly walked down the slope and into the memorial, we separately scanned the names of American men and women killed in the war. We weren't searching for anyone in particular, just reading a name here, another there, trying to comprehend the scope of human loss. Then, reflected together in the high sheen of the stone panels, we saw each other, and our tears began. (Howe 91)
The slight subtleties that Lin has instilled in the wall make the trip down the sidewalk an emotional one. As you start to walk along the path, the wall starts as a mere stretch of black granite gravitating near your feet. Slowly, it starts to lurch above you. It's as though a tidal wave has come up above and is about to sweep over your small figure, but you keep walking, reading the names etched into the granite. Eventually, the wall gets to 10 feet high, and you are nothing in its presence. Your heart beats faster and faster as you continue to saunter past your reflection in the wall. Spread out horizontally (in contrast to the verticality of the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln memorial to the west), every inch and every name of the memorial is within grasp. The two 247-foot walls of the monument expand laterally, hugging close to the earth, depending on the landscape for support as much as they mark it as a site for human suffering and reconciliation. Finally, the wall relents, and it gathers at your feet once again. Never have you experienced emotion like this.
Critics argue that having a memorial in all black, such as Lin's, suggests a morbid tone, and should be redone in white. People call the wall a "black gash of shame" and say it is insulting to the memory of those who had died. They wanted a traditional white marble sculpture featuring figures of soldiers. Lin's written response to critics: "The memorial is black because white south-facing stone would blind its viewers with reflected sunlight" (Anderson 45). Lin put a lot of thought into why the wall should be black. When you stand in front of the black granite, you are able to see your reflection, as though it were a mirror. This alone stands as symbolism for the soldiers' souls captured within the walls' essence. It is as though you are staring at the men and women who fought for America. The reflectiveness that allows you to see your own face slightly blended into the names engraved into the granite is a very moving experience. While writing about his personal trip to the Wall, a man named Broyles described the actual event of coming face to face with the Wall for his Newsweek readers:
It was as if a common emotion held back in so many private corners was all at once coming out into the sunlight. I cried too, more than once As I stood in front of the polished granite I saw the names, but I also saw my own reflection. It fell across the names like a ghost. "Why me, lord?" we asked ourselves in Vietnam. It was a question that came back as I stood there: "why them?" (Broyles 82)
The reaction Broyles held toward the reflective manner of the wall was common. However, some people were not able to handle it as well. An article in Time Magazine describes one veteran's reaction: "He stood back, saluted, saw his reflection in the polished black stone, then let out a kind of agonized whimper before two buddies led him away." (Scruggs 2) Many people had similar responses toward the wall and because of this, creates a bond between an inanimate object and a human being. When asked what inspired her to make such an emotional memorial, Maya Lin said, "I though about what death is, what a loss is. A sharp pain that lessens with time, but can never quite heal over. A scar. The idea occurred to me there on the site. Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it. As if you cut open the rock and polished it." (Matthews 5)
Another controversial issue behind Lin's design was the way names were listed on the wall. People felt as though the names should be listed alphabetically so that it would be easier to find the name of a loved one; however, Lin was very adamant in listing the names chronologically, in the order they died. If the names were set up alphabetically on the wall it would hinder the overall effect it has on the visitors. Hypothetically speaking, if you were to have 90 Smiths who died in Vietnam, the meaning of his death would be lost if you were to look at a wall with 90 Smiths in a row. When taking a step back and seeing that the deaths are listed chronologically, it is as though you are a part of that history. Upon entering her design to the VVMF, Maya Lin submitted this quote:
The Memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it. The passage itself is gradual; the descent to the origin slow, but it is at the origin that the Memorial is to be fully understood. At the intersection of these walls, on the right side, is carved the date of the first death. It is followed by the names of those who died in the war, in chronological order. These names continue on this wall appearing to recede into the earth at the wall's end. The names resume on the left wall as the wall emerges from the earth, continuing back to the origin where the date of the last death is carved. (Stender par. 5)
People feel as though the wall has no significance, yet, Lin put her soul into the design to make sure that it had an underlying importance.
Maya Ying Lin's tribute to the Vietnam War is one that will never be forgotten. Although this wall has struck up much controversy, it is still one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Today, her artwork is known worldwide, and much of her influences came from her first monument, The Vietnam Veteran War Memorial. Though she had to battle many controversial aspects thrown against her design of the wall, she is now a respected artist of the 21st century. After her work for the Vietnam Memorial she was chosen to design the "Civil Rights Memorial" in Montgomery, Alabama, and "The Women's Table" in New Haven, Connecticut. Her most recent endeavor was submitting plans for the World Trade Center Memorial. Although her designs were preliminary, she will not be discounted this time for being Asian. This is evidence that Lin was able to overcome countless racial discriminations, making her a much stronger person and artist. The subtleties in which she creates her artwork have an underlying significance that speaks to both the architectural world and the artist world. She was able to achieve the goals of both fields beautifully.
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