Contributions from the What Is Missing? Foundation and Malcolm Margolin. Courtesy the What Is Missing? Foundation.


Maya Lin


In the fall of 2014, the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California, opened the exhibition “Art/Act: Maya Lin,” which features the artist’s first multimedia project What is Missing? The show itself is the result of the sixth annual Art/Act Award, which was given to Lin—best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC—in recognition of her achievements in art and architectural design, as well as her longstanding dedication to environmentalism.

Upon entering the exhibition, one of the first works that visitors encounter is a video piece from the What is Missing? project (2009– ). The 20-minute video is comprised of 75 short films that provide information on various environmental topics, such as endangered species and habitat loss, created using related sound and footage donated by experts in the field, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Geographic Society. As is expected with a science- and education-oriented presentation, the video is straightforward in its messages and, therefore, rather dry. Seen as a piece of “art,” one might even say that it is boring—if not for the chillingly captivating facts that the films provide about the inevitable demise of our planet. Take the short clip on the “Baiji,” for example. Superimposed on a dark, grainy still-shot of a beautiful, long-beaked dolphin are captions that state the following: “The last confirmed sighting of a Baiji was in 2002, the same year that the sole surviving captive animal—a male called Qi Qi—died. Since then fishermen have reported seeing the Yangtze river dolphins on three occasions, but scientists say it is impossible to confirm the sightings. A scientific expedition in 2006 carried out an extensive survey along from Yuchang to Shanghai, but the team failed to find any evidence that the species survives and concluded that the Yangtze river dolphin is probably extinct—a victim of by-catching in local fisheries and the rapid development and degradation of the Yangtze river.” The film is accompanied by the sound of high-pitched squeaks, which one would assume is that of the dolphins. They are a string of haunting cries that seem to call out hopelessly from the ether.

Meanwhile, along one wall of the main exhibition space is Pin River – Tuolumne (2008). It depicts the aerial view of the Tuolumne river, in Northern California, through hundreds of custom-made pins that are nailed to the wall, and the shadows that they cast on the vertical surface. Part of Lin’s “pin river artwork” series, this particular piece focuses on the importance of Tuolumne, which is a significant water source for Northern California. Through this minimal and elegant sculptural installation, Lin invites viewers to “see monumental natural features as singular wholes” and contemplate the beauty and fragility of our ecological environment.

MAYA LINPin River – Tuolumne, 2008, steel pins, 68 × 237.5 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Elsewhere, in a hallway connected to the main exhibition space, are a couple of computer monitors, each with a keyboard and mouse. The machines display the interactive website component of What is Missing?, which seeks to document the world’s vanishing species and habitats through crowd-sourcing. Visitors are encouraged to access the project’s website and add stories of things they have personally seen disappear from nature. These anecdotes, in turn, are sorted on a world map according to their geographic location, and mixed in with scientific facts. Lin considers this collective digital archive as a memorial for the Earth—a “witness to the biodiversity, species and habitats we are losing.” Yet, as with the educational film portion of What is Missing? that viewers encounter earlier in the exhibition, the computer-desk setting in the hallway gives off a slightly more academic vibe than that of an art show. Nonetheless, it is hard not to appreciate the extensive research has been put into this project, as wel as and its creative effort to raise awareness of the precious nature that is being lost to human hubris. 

What is Missing? is a project of the What is Missing? Foundation, which Lin established to create science-based artworks that “highlight what scientists and environmental groups throughout the world are doing to find solutions to the extinction crisis and the overarching threat of climate change.” In addition to the videos, computers and wall sculpture, the exhibition at the David Brower Center also includes visual and educational infographics, which provide alarming environmental facts that most people are blissfully unaware of (e.g., “What crop uses the most insecticides worldwide?” Answer: cotton).

In the end, the exhibition’s content perhaps leans heavier toward science than art—but with the best of intentions. The show is a gentle yet stern wake-up call for viewers to revisit their relationship with nature and consider that it is within our power (and responsibility) to save the environment that we—the human race—have damaged.

“Art/Act: Maya Lin” is on view at the David Brower Center, Berkeley, until February 4, 2015.