MAYA LIN – Artist Debuts “What Is Missing?” At CA Academy of Sciences

Multimedia artwork filled with images and sounds will raise global attention to vanishing species

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka


This week San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) President P.J. Johnston and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences Dr. Gregory Farrington dedicated a new permanent sculpture, entitled What is Missing?, by world-renowned artist Maya Lin. The sculpture is part of Lin’s last public memorial and is the international debut of the first component of a multi-sited, multimedia artwork dedicated to raising awareness about the current crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss. Rethinking the traditional stationary monument, What is Missing?  is a memorial that will exist in several media and in multiple places simultaneously. The permanent site-specific What is Missing? sculpture, installed at the Academy’s East Terrace, is part of a larger commission awarded to the artist by the San Francisco Arts Commission that includes Where the Land Meets the Sea, which was unveiled last September to correspond with the opening of the Academy’s new facility designed by architect Renzo Piano. The dedication of What is Missing? coincides with the Academy’s one-year anniversary in the new building. The Academy is the only institution in the world to house two permanent sculptures by Maya Lin.

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WHAT IS MISSING? – Maya Lin. Bronze, reclaimed redwood, laminated glass, and single-channel video with sound. 8’6″ high x 10’8″ wide x 19’2″ length. Commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the California Academy of Sciences. Photo, Bill Wilson

What is Missing? is a poignant reminder of what we stand to lose if the crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss continues,” said Mayor Newsom. “Maya Lin’s sculpture shows what is at stake and why reducing our environmental impact is one of our most urgent challenges. By making significant changes in our daily lives, such as driving less, recycling more or supporting sustainable food production, we can stem global warming and protect endangered species for generations to come.”

The permanent What is Missing? sculpture consists of an 8’6″ x  10’8″ x 19’2″ bronze “Listening Cone” lined with reclaimed wood. A 2′ 4 ¼” x 4’6″ screen, located within the cone, features more than 20 minutes of compelling video footage that links extinct as well as threatened and endangered species to the habitats and ecosystems that are vital to their survival. The featured species, which include the tuna, dodo bird, monarch butterfly, golden toad, and others, were selected because they are either already extinct or will most likely disappear in our lifetime. The video footage is overlayed with text describing the decline of the featured species and the alarming degradation of their habitats. The text connects the viewer to the main causes of extinction—direct harvesting, non-sustainable hunting and fishing practices, the introduction of non-native species, habitat destruction and global climate change.

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P.J. JOHNSTON, President (SFAC). Photo, Bill Wilson

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JILL MANTON, Director of Programs (SFAC) and MAYA LIN. Photo, Bill Wilson

A dedicated environmentalist, Lin has been committed to focusing attention on the natural world throughout her career, and has incorporated sustainable and recycled materials into many of her artworks. “What is Missing? is both a wake-up call and a call to action,” says Lin.  “Underscoring the Academy’s drive to protect the natural world through education and research, the work shows what is being done by research and conservation organizations to address the crisis, as well as what individuals can do in their everyday lives to make a difference. I believe that art, at times, can look at a subject differently, and in doing so can get people to pay closer attention.”



“Maya Lin’s sculpture blends art and activism by providing a tangible, aesthetic experience that articulates her environmental mission and engages the public in a dialogue about critical ecological issues,” stated Luis R. Cancel, Director of Cultural Affairs for the SFAC. “The dedication of What is Missing? marks an incredible achievement for the Arts Commission’s 40-year-old Public Art Program. With the sculpture’s addition to the Civic Art Collection, San Francisco will be home not only to Lin’s last public memorial, but also her first multimedia artwork.”

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JOHN W. FITZPATRICK, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo, Bill Wilson

Lin spent years researching the subject matter for the project and developing the appropriate visual expression for the work. Throughout the project, she received support from numerous organizations around the country, including the California Academy of Sciences, as well as Conservation International, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic Society, and ARKive, who donated the video and audio recordings.  Panthera, National Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund, among others, contributed research assistance. The media illustrates the alarming depletion of animals and places from our lives — from the sheer abundance of species to the loss of migratory corridors, from the diminished visibility of the stars at night to the vanishing sounds of songbirds. The setting for What is Missing? is in itself a part of the memorial’s story.

Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences have been exploring and documenting biodiversity for more than 155 years, and the museum’s exhibits highlight some of the planet’s most unusual and endangered  life forms. “What is Missing? reflects the Academy’s mission to explore, explain and protect the natural world,” says Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences.  “The memorial is a wonderful complement to the research and education underway at the Academy.  Along with Lin’s Where the Land Meets the Sea, it will help engage people with the question of how we will sustain life on Earth, a theme that runs throughout the institution.”  

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Dr. Gregory Farrington, Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences. Photo, Bill Wilson

In developing What is Missing?, Lin spent multiple visits over a 4-year period talking with Academy researchers about  the stories behind various extinctions and dwindling populations.  Several of the fragile locales that were selected have been destinations for Academy research expeditions for decades.  Data collected on such expeditions is used to better understand historical and existing levels of biodiversity, and to model future scenarios.  The Academy’s Center for Biodiversity Research is developing high-resolution maps to do just that, projecting the future ranges of key species under different climate scenarios on a ten by ten kilometer grid.  These maps, and other Academy research projects, are providing some of the first actionable data for conservation managers who must now plan for the impact of global climate change.



The second component of the What is Missing? memorial is a traveling dark room with projected images and sounds from a variety of endangered species. Visitors are encouraged to navigate through the space with translucent screens that capture images and brief statements when held over the floor projections. This portion of the project will debut at the Beijing Center for the Arts on September 19 during their Shan Shui exhibition. The United States debut of the dark room component will take place at the Storm King Art Center during Climate Week NYC (September 21-25). Subsequent site-specific installations, including a video that will appear on MTV’s electronic billboard in Times Square sponsored by Creative Time, and the What is Missing? website will launch around Earth Day 2010.

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MAYA LIN. What Is Missing? Photo, Bill Wilson

For this Arts Commission project, Maya Lin was selected from a candidate pool of 25 artists by a joint committee composed of representatives from the California Academy of Sciences, the Arts Commission, local museum curators and the Music Concourse Citizens’ Advisory Committee. The committee representatives were appointed to oversee the development of the public art program for the new Academy. Lin was chosen through a rigorous process concluding with an interview with the Advisory Committee. Although the California Academy of Sciences is a private nonprofit institution, its buildings occupy City property and a portion of the construction cost of the new building was funded with General Obligation Bonds. For this reason, the City’s Art Enrichment Ordinance was applicable and provided the funding for the project and the project was arranged by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

About the California Academy of Sciences

Founded in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences is one of the world’s leading scientific and cultural institutions, home to an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and world-class research and education programs.  The Academy has a staff of over 50 professional educators and Ph.D.-level scientists, supported by more than 100 Research and Field Associates and over 300 Fellows. It conducts research in eleven scientific fields: anthropology, aquatic biology, botany, comparative genomics, entomology, geology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, mammalogy and ornithology.

On September 27, 2008, the Academy opened the doors to its new building in Golden Gate Park. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the facility received a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council for its environmentally-sensitive design.  Exhibit highlights include a four-story living rainforest, an awe-inspiring coral reef ecosystem, and interactive space shows that transport audiences beyond the boundaries of our planet. For more information: California Academy of Sciences

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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