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Maya Lin’s “What Is Missing?” Project Uses Lab Sound, Video

Lab Director John Fitzpatrick contemplates “What Is Missing?” by Maya Lin.
Lab Director John Fitzpatrick contemplates “What Is Missing?” by Maya Lin. Photo by Ellen Shershow Peña.

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On Thursday, Sept. 17, a new art installation by Maya Lin opened at the California Academy of Sciences. Part of a series entitled “What Is Missing?” the piece is a listening cone of bronze and reclaimed redwood, made to an oversized scale reminiscent of a fallen sequoia log.

Like all of Lin’s work (most famously the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC), “What Is Missing?” is a simple, sleek shape embodying a profound concept, and its power unfolds gradually.

Approach the large end and you’ll hear animal voices wafting from the opening. Images flicker from the dim interior. Look closer, and at the far end, some 20 feet away, you’ll see orangutans, Red Knots, gray wolves, Bald Eagles, a jaguar.

If you have to squint to make out the details; if the sounds reverberate and distort on their way along the passageway, it’s Lin’s way of illustrating both the dimming hopes of endangered species, and the fact that they’re not yet entirely out of our reach. “This Earth is incredibly resilient, and what once was can come back if we let it and we give it space,” Lin said at the opening. “But how can we protect it if we don’t even see it as existing?”

Maya Lin worked closely with scientists at the Cornell Lab to develop soundscapes and video sequences for the project, drawing on the Macaulay Library‘s holdings—the largest archive of animal sound and behavior in the world. Lab director John Fitzpatrick visited the California Academy and spoke at the opening, saying

At the Cornell Lab we have revered sound ever since the first sophisticated recording devices were invented. Just as acoustic communication is ubiquitous and essential in the bird world, natural sounds also can evoke powerful emotional and subjective reactions, as well as intellectual ones, among humans. In What is Missing?, Maya Lin’s genius is to juxtapose scientifically documented sounds, images, and facts in imaginative ways that connect individuals to a natural world that is indeed on the verge of going missing. We cannot imagine a more important use of the assets so carefully gathered and archived through the decades at the Cornell Lab.

Lab bioacoustics researcher Chris Clark helped compile a piece for the project that helps people realize how loud the ocean is for the animals that live in it. Fitzpatrick, along with several Macaulay Library archivists, helped choose recordings of Common Loons, humpback whales, prairie-chickens, sea turtles, pronghorns, and coral reefs.

If you can’t get to San Francisco for the exhibit itself, see this short video exploration of the installation from the Bay Area News Group. It gives a much better sense of the atmosphere of the piece than still photos can.

In addition to this installation, “What Is Missing?” includes a traveling exhibit (which debuted in Beijing and is now in New York City), and in coming months an online component and a video to be displayed on the MTV billboard in Times Square. The traveling exhibit is another remarkable concept: a darkroom in which videos are projected from panes in the floor. Visitors walk through the room catching the projections on translucent screens they carry in their hands. Marvelous, poignant, and hopeful all at the same time.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library