Confluence is a six-site art installation along the Columbia. Monuments to the river’s past include recessed seating circles for storytelling in Pasco, Lewis and Clark journal inscriptions in Ilwaco, and a land bridge in Vancouver. The multiyear, 438-river-mile endeavor is from New York’s Maya Lin, the artist known for the stark black Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Confluence’s last artwork will go up in 2017 at Celilo Falls near the Dalles, where a mighty waterfall was submerged in 1957 by the dams that interrupted the river’s flow.
You’ve said that when you agreed to do Confluence, it was important not just what the project was about but for whom.
Oh, absolutely. I kept saying, “I can’t take on another project right now.” And then Governor Locke called me up [in 2001] and said, “Maya, would you just meet these people?” All I could think of was like, Oh, it’s Lewis and Clark. You know, man-on-a-horse or man-on-a-canoe sort of a thing. I don’t really do commemorative sculptures, so to speak. But the people that came to my studio were the tribal elders of the Chinook, the Umatilla, the Nez Perce. And I realized who was asking.
As one of the tribal elders put it: “Excuse me? Lewis and Clark did not discover this land; we were here.” I realized why they wanted me to take a look at this from many cultural perspectives. I said, “If I can look at this place not just in terms of the Lewis and Clark history, but go deeper into the cultural Native American history, as well as from an ecological point of view, I would be really honored to participate and work on this project.”
So Confluence isn’t a memorial?
It’s funny, it depends on what you think of as a memorial. I make art, I make architecture, and throughout my career I have worked on what will be five...memory works, is how I term them. How can we learn from our past in a way to shape a different future? In that sense, they’ve always been teaching tools.
What will be at Celilo Falls?
Of the six sites, I think Celilo has always been the most emotionally charged. If you didn’t know about the Pacific Northwest, you might not have heard of Celilo Falls. It was an ecological wonder where, I think, more water flowed over it than at Niagara Falls.
And it was a huge native gathering place.
It was the great fishing grounds for so many of the tribes. It was the Wall Street of the west. I’m going to try to create this wooden, gently arced bridge. The wooden arc is very much inspired by the form of the historic fishing platforms that used to cantilever out over the falls.
First, the falls will be described from geologic time, then mythic, Native American time, then early accounts from Lewis and Clark; they barely made it over the falls. About two-thirds of the way along this wooden platform it goes silent until you get to the end, where we get one sentence, a historic account of what it used to sound like. And you’re looking out on silence.
And then it’s done?
Conceptually, for me, the seventh “site” will be a book. Seven is such an important number. It’s like the cardinal directions: north, south, east, west, up, down, and in. That really resonates with me for this project.