Art21 Extended Play

Maya Lin reflects on New York’s ecological past and Hurricane Sandy


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Artist Maya Lin in her Manhattan studio. Production still from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Cinematography by Rafael Salazar Moreno.

“If we forget what used to be, then we’ve lost an ability to really be sensitive to our surroundings.”

In today’s Exclusive artist Maya Lin, speaking from her Manhattan studio in late 2012 and early 2013, discusses her new body of work now on view at Pace Gallery in New York City.

Lin began these artworks by examining New York’s ecological past—from the time when streams and marshes covered Manhattan through to Hurricane Sandy when rising sea levels wreaked havoc on the city. A lifelong environmental activist, Lin has continually created artworks that encourage viewers to rethink their immediate surroundings.

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Detail of Maya Lin’s “Pin River – Sandy,” 2013.
Production still from the series Exclusive. © Art21, Inc. 2013. Cinematography by Ian Forster.

By looking at New York’s past, Lin hopes we can better protect its future. Knowledge of ecological history is crucial as elected officials, homeowners, and business leaders debate the best ways to rebuild and protect against super storms. These recent discussions, according to Lin, acknowledge that if we had not destroyed all of the oyster beds, they would have mitigated much of Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge. “Or if the salt marshes were to come back, they’d be there as our first line of defense.”

It’s hard to imagine a city such as New York—one that prides itself on man-made achievements like skyscrapers, bridges, and underground subways—looking to nature for protection. But as Lin points out, it was nature that protected and cleaned New York’s harbor for thousands of years. “Do we remember that this is what Manhattan used to be?” Lin asks. “And if we remember it, could we restore it back to a fraction of what its abundance used to be?”

To hear more from Lin about the environment and see her new body of work, watch the Exclusive: