Systematic Landscapes transforms public space

With Systematic Landscapes, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through July 12, 2009, Maya Lin brings landscapes into an art gallery.  This one, generative, earthly reality is an unsought gift to every human being. Systematic Landscapes presents works that make visible within the Corcoran Gallery unseeable forms of this gift.

The works build upon familiar models of the natural world.  Prior to cheap maps, many persons living around the Chesapeake Bay probably would not recognize what most persons now understand to be the shape of the Bay.  The poured-silver map-shape of the Chesapeake Bay in Systematic Landscapes builds upon that new understanding.  Water Line is a room-sized line-contour sculpture of an underwater landmass that, according to the exhibition brochure, is located in the South Atlantic Ocean near Antarctica.  To a native of South America a millennium ago, it probably would look like a fishing net.  Blue Lake Pass models “an actual mountain range near the artist’s Colorado home.”  If one of the Bodies of Water Series (Caspian Sea, Red Sea, and Black Sea) was turned over, enlarged, and cubed, it would look a lot like Blue Lake Pass, except for a significant difference in the direction of movement of the contours.  What stabilizes and informs the works are common knowledge of the map-shapes of seas and the conventions of topological representations.

The representational characteristics of digital technology strongly shapes Systematic Landscapes.  Digital works are composed from a large number of discrete, uniformly organized, sharply bounded bits.  2×4 Landscape, which has a steeply rising protrusion in the midst of a room-sized base, is made from more than 50,000 2×4’s arranged in a tight, regular grid in two dimensions.  Blue Lake Pass and Bodies of Water Series are composed from equal-width wooden slices. Pins are the bits in Pin River — Volga. A topologically square grid of wire forms the fabric for Water Line.  Compared to mosaics, works in this exhibition more insistently highlight regularity in their constituting bits.

The exhibition encourages viewer engagement and consideration of new computer technologies.  The exhibition brochure explains:

Each [large-scale sculptural installation] offers a different means for viewers to engage with and comprehend a schematic representation of landscape forms.  In this exhibition, Lin examines how our modern relationships to the land we inhabit are extended, condensed, distorted, and interpreted through new computer technologies.  She translates a series of dramatic landscape environments, selected for their inspiring beauty and connection to life-supporting habitats, into spatial environments with which viewers can engage in an art gallery setting.

When I took out my digital camera to make an image of 2×4 Landscape, the guard ordered me to stop.  While Maya Lin has even encouraged the Corcoran to allow visitors to walk on this work, photographing the landscapes is prohibited.  Whether the source of this prohibition is the artist, the artist’s gallery, or the Corcoran exhibition director, isn’t clear.  In the brochure, every photograph is tagged, “Courtesy of PaceWildenstein.”  Why not courtesy of wind, water, and time?  PaceWildenstein is a New York Gallery that represents Maya Lin. Economic reality is part of the total earthly landscape. But economic landscapes, like physical landscapes, can be seen in different ways. Prohibiting viewers from using digital cameras to engage with Systematic Landscapes seems to me disappointingly inconsistent with the exhibition’s spirit.

This September, Maya Lin is planning to premiere a work entitled What is Missing? This work will focus on the loss of habitats and the extinction of species.  Her website describes this work as involving a multi-site video project, an Internet site, and a book.  I hope What is Missing? will allow user engagement using modern digital technology and foster a variety of new creations.  Human beings can add to our common gifts.

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