Maya Lin’s Silver Upper White River

The river’s brilliant reflections gave shape to this enormous sculpture of silver.

Maya Lin, Silver Upper White River, 2015, recycled silver, 332.7 x 609.6 x 1 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville) © Maya Lin. Speakers: Alejo Benedetti, Assistant Curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Steven Zucker, a Seeing America video

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in a gallery that is actually a bridge spanning a body of water, looking at Maya Lin’s “Silver Upper White River”; this is a large sculpture that extends across an enormous wall.

Alejo Benedetti: [0:21] It’s 20 feet wide. There’s something really special about getting to work with an object like this in the real space of this bridge gallery, where the water is going right by, and on days when it’s sunny and the conditions are just right you get reflections that make the whole piece sparkle.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] The sculpture is almost like a large piece of jewelry, but it is actually representational. It represents the geography of the Upper White River, part of an enormous river system.

Alejo: [0:46] This starts in the Boston Mountains here in Arkansas. It runs up north into southern Missouri and then back down into Arkansas before it opens up onto the Mississippi.

[0:56] This is a huge part of the landscape in this country, and the different bodies of water that are on here we have direct interactions with. Beaver Lake is the big source of drinking water for this area.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] Which we can see on the lower left of the sculpture. And so this has deep roots in this place.

Alejo: [1:13] When Maya Lin was first coming to visit Crystal Bridges, she was flying over this site and she looked out and saw this stretch of water. When she landed she asked, “What was that that I was seeing?” She found out that it was the Upper White River. She said, “I need to do a work inspired by that.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] Now, this is part of a series of sculptures that map major river systems around the world. She did another sculpture of the Yangtze in China produced with pins. The Chesapeake — an estuary, not so much a river system — was rendered in marbles.

[1:43] Maya Lin’s career exists in this really unusual space that includes both art and architecture.

Alejo: [1:50] I think you see from the first work that she creates on a grand scale, the “Vietnam Memorial,” this is not a monument that sits on top of the land, but this is a monument that is part of the land itself. This engagement with the environment is something that stays consistent throughout her career.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] When we look at this sculpture, because it’s silver, because it’s so reflective, the sculpture changes as I move across it. The organic nature of the river is made so vivid here. The tributaries are tendril-like.

[2:19] There is something anthropomorphic about this sculpture as she isolates the water from the land around it, creating this sculpture that is both a map and an abstraction.

Alejo: [2:30] The work itself has this really amazing presence, and I think that at times it almost feels like veins in a body. There’s so many different ways that we can understand this work.

[2:39] Maya Lin is very intentional about the materials that she uses. Here, she’s using recycled silver. Silver is a precious material. We know when we see silver that this is something with value. She’s equating that significance of the material with the significance of these bodies of water that she’s representing.

[2:57] She talks about how when European settlers first came to the Americas, they talked about how abundant the fish were, the waters running silver because of all the fish that were in it.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] But of course, silver has been recycled, reused because it’s a currency, for thousands of years, just like gold. And in a sense, just like the water of this system. This water has recycled through evaporation, through clouds and rain into rivers, over and over again. Just like this silver has probably been coins and sculptures and jewelry for thousands of years.

Alejo: [3:31] The material itself has had many lives. When Maya Lin chooses to use specifically recycled silver, she’s taking all of that history that’s built into that material, but then also being exceptionally aware of the environmental impact that she’s having as she’s selecting this recycled material as opposed to starting brand new.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] The sanctity of these complex river systems is something that needs to be preserved. It’s part of a bigger project that’s important to the artist, what she calls her “Last Monument,” a web-based project which maps and memorializes species and natural systems that are now either extinct or on the brink of extinction.

[4:08] I’m so grateful that Maya Lin had that experience, was willing to communicate it to the museum, and the museum, in turn, welcomed this project with open arms.

Alejo: [4:16] It’s the product of Maya Lin’s brilliance and her ability to see a moment that she wants to capture and then her execution of that in a way that is really quite remarkable and stunning.

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Cite this page as: Alejo Benedetti, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Maya Lin’s Silver Upper White River," in Smarthistory, February 1, 2020, accessed July 13, 2024,