Drawing in space 

Maya Lin at the IMA

“It was hard. It’s actually a very hard space to work with,” said artist Maya Lin, looking up into the wind at her sculpture, “Above and Below,” being installed above the Fortune Balcony on the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s western wall. “I was actually stumped by it for a few years.”

“Above and Below” is a sinuous construction of aluminum tubing that Lin describes as a “drawing in space.” It’s 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, modeled after an underground stretch of the White River Lin was introduced to in Bluespring Caverns State Park, near Bedford, Ind.

What stumped Lin, best known as designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and an acknowledged master of site-specific artworks that respond to the environment, was two-fold. In the first place, her work, she said, is “very reliant on interesting terrain and topography and, I’m sorry, Indiana just doesn’t have a lot of interesting terrain and topography.” Then there was the matter of the Fortune Balcony, the site for her piece. Having to work within the context of already existing architecture represented a new challenge for Lin. “This is unique in that it is an environmental installation that takes over and transforms a space; it’s not so much an object that describes a space,” Lin said.

The landscape issue was solved by one of Lin’s assistants, an Indiana native, who informed her that Indiana has one of the most extensive underground river systems in the world. This led Lin to the Bluespring Cavern, and to describe “a little known but very large geologic phenomenon that happens to be under our feet.” Lin went underground and, for a while, was able to follow the river by canoe. “I try to highlight things that are, at times, right under your very nose — that you probably never notice.”

Dealing with the IMA’s existing architecture presented another type of challenge. Lin is also a practicing architect who believes her artworks tend to have one voice and her buildings another. “This is not a neutral box,” Lin said, casting her eyes over the compact, cloister-like space. “It’s about being able to make the jump, seamlessly, and maintain the same aesthetic voice and not just make an object. That’s been the real discovery and challenge for me. The danger in making a piece that is very site-specific lies in being co-opted too much by the space.”

Regarding the balcony’s concrete floor, Lin exclaimed, “This is bleak!” Concerned that viewers who step out onto the balcony from the museum’s Asian Gallery might be brought down by the barren surface underfoot, Lin said she felt her inner architect taking over. One day, while visiting the museum, she happened to sip from a drinking fountain near the Administration Office. The fountain’s splashguard was made from limestone tiles. “THAT is what we should be doing,” thought Lin, who used the rest of her budget to arrange to have the balcony floor completely resurfaced — a process that will be completed this spring.

“Every once in a while,” Lin smiles, “I end up living in both worlds.”

Maya Lin’s “Above and Below” can now be viewed through windows from inside the museum’s Contemporary Gallery or from the Fortune Balcony. The installation will also be illuminated at night. For more information, call 317-923-1331 or visit www.imamuseum.org.

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