Maya Lin is the designer of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. The design was chosen in an anonymous contest open to many. She was an architectural student at Yale University at the time and only 23 years old. The question could be asked if the selection of her design would have been made had her identity as a young Asian woman been known by the judges. Highly unlikely.
Nonetheless, the artistic judges that responded by selecting her design did so out of recognition of the intuition she brought to it for it is a deeply truthful expression of the destiny of America. Maya Lin had imagined the memorial as a furrow of earth turned up to the light, as if opening the land with a plow and bringing light into the darkness. In visiting the site, one descends down by the long wall of the memorial as though going into the earth, for it is mostly below ground level. The image in this memorial of America’s deeper destiny is profound. As a nation we are meant to penetrate the secrets of the material world, to work in practical ways deep into physical matter and bring that work forward to benefit the world. But as the memorial reminds us, in so doing we come to the threshold of death and are challenged to understand the spirit beyond death and behind matter itself. We are called in the West to go through matter, materialism and death and come to the spirit that lies behind all life. We are challenged to come to a resurrection of consciousness. An act of true freedom.
The memorial beautifully meets the observer with its polished black marble wall, so clear and mirror-like the observer faces an image of him or herself. One can say it is like standing at a threshold of death and awareness. The sun, (and the light of the viewer’s consciousness), shines on the polished black wall. All those who have died are represented, their names carved into the granite. Not as one might expect on a military edifice, organized into squadrons and platoons, but flow together in common sacrifice, inscribed in the order in which they died. The world of the living, the world of the dead, the threshold in between; a spiritual truth represented in simple elegance of this memorial.
It is touching that there were veterans who could not fully encompass the deeper meaning in Maya Lin’s work and asked for another statue of combat soldiers to be placed nearby as a more ‘realistic’ honoring of the Vietnam dead. Maya Lin’s creation is one of the most moving and awakening memorials in the nation’s capitol and one of the most visited, as people are instinctively drawn there for the deeper truths it embodies. Coming to it can truly be a threshold awakening experience. As a nation we are standing at this threshold of death and whether in our thinking and deeds we will serve life or death and materialism. The need for awakening is tantamount for the sake of our future and that of the world.
Maya Lin also designed the Civil Rights memorial in Atlanta Georgia, again bringing her beautiful artistic capacities to the design. It is a black rock, a rounded chalice like shape and leveled across the top like a full cup. It is inscribed with the names of those who died, and gently washed by a continuous veil of flowing water, waters of forgiveness, of hope, of cleansing, for a nation that must heal and transform and make peace with its history.