Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Artist: Maya Lin
Medium: Black cut-stone masonry wall
Citation: Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982. Maya Lin (b. 1959). Black cut-stone masonry wall. 246 feet 9 inches x 10 feet 1 inch (75 x 3 meters). Washington, D.C. Groundbreaking: March 26, 1982; dedication: November 13, 1982.
Rights Holder: Washington, D.C. Groundbreaking: March 26, 1982; dedication: November 13, 1982.
Engage! Theme: Signs and Symbols
Chinese American, Ohio-born architect Maya Lin was a Yale undergraduate when she won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. Her design was selected from over 1,420 other applicants.
The V-shaped wall is made of black granite and inscribed with the names of 58,261 soldiers who died during the Vietnam conflict (1961–75) The wall points to the Washington Monument on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other. Lin has called it “a wound in the earth that is slowly healing.”
The wall is 493 feet, 6 inches long. At the entrance, it is only 8 inches high, but it gradually dips at the center to a depth of 10 feet, 3 inches below ground level. As they move along the wall, visitors sink below grade and then return to ground level, as if walking into and out of a grave.
By including names, rather than faces, of lost veterans, Lin quantifies loss. The only faces that visitors see are their own reflections, as they come to embody lost soldiers. The multitude of names are listed in chronological, not alphabetical, order; visitors often take pencil to paper to make a rubbing of a loved one’s name.
Lin’s sculpture is minimalist—art that is stripped down to its most basic forms. Criticized by some veterans as a “black gash of shame” and “nihilistic slab of stone,” Lin’s design conveys the absolute finality of loss and death. It does so on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., amid monuments that commemorate America’s great leaders and triumphs and museums that celebrate American history and innovation.
The criteria of the design competition stipulated that the monument was to: (1) be reflective and contemplative in character; (2) harmonize with its surroundings; (3) contain the names of those who died in conflict or were still missing; and (4) make no political statement about the war. How did Lin’s design address these criteria?
Prior to Vietnam, V stood for victory. What does the V shape stand for here? Is victory glorified?
What do we communicate about America through our memorials? What parts of history should be remembered and why?
Do you know any soldiers? Why did they become soldiers? Is it important to remember their service to the country?
How would you want to be remembered?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Look at additional images of the monument (search Google Images or Flickr). Find photographs that show people interacting with the memorial wall. What kind of space does this monument create? How do visitors move through it? What activities take place there?
Compare the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to a local war memorial and consider how the artist envisioned the viewer’s relationship to it. How does the relationship between either memorial and its viewer reflect the relationship of citizen to fallen veteran? What signs and symbols are used to memorialize lost veterans and honor the dead in the local example and in Lin’s memorial?
It may be especially effective to select a more traditional, figurative monument (figure on a pedestal) to compare to Lin’s abstract design. Compare how abstract versus figurative works convey meaning..
Additional drawings and photographs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Maya Lin, Boundaries (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006): essays by Maya Lin about her work, especially the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), Introduction and Chapter 1.