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Headed for Extinction
Could Maya Lin's latest memorial be her last?
Maya Lin's new installation What is Missing? outside the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Bruce Damonte

Last month’s unveiling of Maya Lin’s What is Missing?—a tribute to extinct animal species, and the second of the artist’s two permanent works commissioned for the Renzo Piano–designed California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco—raised a nagging question. Is this really Lin’s last memorial?

Lin's installation seen from inside the academy of sciences.
Bruce Damonte

Although reports that Lin had designed her last memorial have circulated since 1982 when she completed her first, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin’s office claims that What is Missing?, funded by the city’s Arts Commission, is her last, as Lin herself has been saying in presentations. In her 2000 book Boundaries, Lin described plans for her fifth memorial as focused on the environment, and dispersed in different locations. Completed nearly a decade later, What is Missing?, her first multimedia work, has arrived.

Set on the academy’s east terrace, the piece’s physical component is the “Listening Cone,” a quietly imposing cast-bronze form lined with reclaimed redwood. It draws visitors in with the sounds of 50 extinct or endangered species and landscapes, sourced from research archives worldwide. Within the cone, compelling quotes, statistics, and images emerge on an eye-shaped video screen.

Lin, an active environmentalist, described the cone as a portal focusing attention on the slow yet catastrophic loss of species and the habitats that support them. As Lin sees it, awareness is the first step toward action: “How can we protect them if we don’t even know they’re endangered?” she said.

“The Empty Room,” a traveling component of the memorial, also opened last month in the Beijing Center for the Arts and at the Storm King Art Center in New York. A billboard installation in Times Square and the launch of the What is Missing? website are scheduled for 2010.

A version of this article appeared in AN 08_10.28.2009_CA.

Yosh Asato