Artist and Designer Maya Lin Presents Major New Works

Also known as an environmentalist, she discusses “Ghost Forest” and “What Is Missing,” which both address climate change.

Angeline Joelle Dimambro
June 16, 2021

On June 10, 2021, renowned artist, designer, and environmentalist Maya Lin discussed her recent works in an online event copresented by the Forum, the Center for the Study of Social Difference, School of the Arts, Columbia World Projects, and the Earth Institute. She spoke with Andrew Revkin, director of the Initiative on Communication Innovation and Impact at the Earth Institute.

Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts, introduced Lin: “Few creators move as intelligently, unexpectedly, and fluidly between architecture, art, science, the analytic, and the intuitive. Maya Lin is a rare artist, who has a very developed poetic sensibility, and creates sculptural, conceptual gestures in the public landscape to engage individuals and society in the important conversations about history, memory, the visuality and politics of representation, civil rights, the earth itself, and human interventions in nature.”

Lin was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, and, later, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2016, who praised her for a celebrated career in both art and architecture. Lin is also known for creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sacred place of healing in Washington D.C.

Ghost Forest: The Devastation of Climate Change

Lin first discussed Ghost Forest, which is on display now through November 14, 2021 in Madison Square Park in New York City. Ghost Forest is a towering stand of 49 Atlantic white cedar trees, which symbolizes the devastation of climate change. The height of each tree—about 40 feet—overwhelms human scale and stands as a metaphor of the outsized impact of a looming environmental calamity.

Lin described her creative process for the project, which she installed earlier this year at the downtown Manhattan site. Like her previous outdoor work—which ranges from the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to the Confluence Projects, about the Columbia River system—Ghost Forest is site-specific. However, while many of Lin’s previous works are permanent installations, Ghost Forest is a temporary piece. 

The inspiration for the project came to Lin when she was at her house in Colorado, where there has been a recent die-off of conifer trees because of warmer winters. Lin traced a parallel between this ongoing environmental loss and a similar phenomenon in New Jersey, where the native cedar trees are suffering tree rot due to the rise in salt levels as local water tables continue to be infiltrated. As a result, the affected cedars typically die in two to three years. For Ghost Forest, Lin sourced a group of cedars that were dying because of a nearby river flooding. 

Lin and her team selected each tree that appears in Ghost Forest, a meticulous and difficult process. The trees were then transported to their temporary home in Madison Park, where Lin installed her haunting grove. “I looked at how to dialogue with the trees of the park,” she said. “I set up the grove to be irregular, but it is very hard to make something feel natural, so I was trying to make a work that would never line up.” 

What Is Missing? A Call to Action

Although Ghost Forest is a stand-alone work, it is also an iteration of Lin’s ongoing digital project, What Is Missing?, which creates, through science–based artworks, an awareness about the current sixth mass extinction of species. The project also connects this loss of species to habitat degradation and loss, and emphasizes that, by protecting and restoring habitats, we can both reduce carbon emissions and protect species.

“I call What Is Missing my fifth and final memorial,” Lin said. “I started it about 20 years ago, and I have been oddly building it in full view with multisided pieces. I am drawn to dealing with the cultural and political issues that I grew up with—the war, women's rights, civil rights, Native American rights. And ever since I was a kid, I have been concerned about the environment, so for this project, I set up my nonprofit foundation. As with Ghost ForestWhat Is Missing focuses attention on loss, not only to wake you up to get you to act, but to also pose solutions.”

Mapping the Future, which Lin and her team have been working on for the last two years, is a new, interactive addition to What is Missing? It asks audiences to collectively imagine new pathways forward, and to share personal stories of the environmental losses or changes they have witnessed. Share a memory, the project suggests, something that you have seen diminish or disappear from the natural world.

"Getting people to step back and have the capacity to look at the big picture, which Lin has done so effectively with these pieces, is crucial,” said Revkin.

“As an artist, I always ask, how can I help envision a sustainable future?” said Lin.

Angeline Joelle Dimambro is a Screenwriting/Directing Film MFA student at the School of the Arts.