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What Is Missing?: Maya Lin's Memorial on the Sixth Extinction
Amanda Reed, 12 Oct 10

What is Missing? is a multi-media multi-site memorial by Maya Lin that aims to build awareness about species loss and highlight what scientists and environmental groups throughout the world are doing to protect species and habitats. It's a manifestation of the mission of the What is Missing? Foundation to make the sixth extinction more visible through artwork based on science, and to emphasize the importance of preventing deforestation as a way of reducing emissions and protecting animals and habitat. Maya Lin describes the project on her website:

There have been five mass extinctions in the history of our planet. The last one was caused by an asteroid the size of Manhattan hitting the earth at the speed of 18,000 meters per second. We are now witnessing the sixth mass extinction in the planet's history, the only one caused not by a catastrophic event, but by the actions of one single species: mankind.

Approximately every 20 minutes we witness the disappearance of a distinct living species of plant or animal. Within our lifetime we will witness the extinction of an incalculable number of species. By some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the world's animals and plants could be on a path to extinction within 100 years.

What is Missing? will make us aware of the enormous loss of species that is presently occurring. Chronicling not just the extinction of specific species, it will focus equal attention on the threatened habitats and ecosystems that are vital to other species' survival. It will also address the issues that people are not even aware are disappearing, from the sheer abundance of species and their scale to the loss of migratory corridors, the diminished sounds of songbirds that were common in our childhood, even the visibility of the stars at night.

The goal of What is Missing? is to not just make us aware of these losses but to give us direction and hope for what can be done to help.

What is Missing? will provide an overview of what is being done throughout the world in terms of conservation and habitat protection. It will give viewers a glimpse of our global environment, taking people to different places, highlighting specific groups and showing the progress that is being made in the critical areas in which they work.

What is Missing? will pose a question: Can we achieve carbon neutrality through a model of sustainable growth that is integrally linked with habitat preservation and sustainable agricultural and forestry practices?

The memorial consists of multiple permanent and temporary art installations, 70 videos, and future plans for a book. What is Missing? debuted last year with the permanent art installation titled "Listening Cone," which, as described in The Architect's Newspaper, is "a quietly imposing cast-bronze form lined with reclaimed redwood."

It draws visitors in with the sounds of 50 extinct or endangered species and landscapes, sourced from research archives worldwide. Within the cone, compelling quotes, statistics, and images emerge on an eye-shaped video screen.

Maya Lin, What is Missing? Listening Cone, 2009, installed at California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. | Photo by: Bruce Damonte Photography, Inc. © Maya Lin Studio, Inc., courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York. (via Flickr / WBUR)

Maya Lin, What is Missing? Listening Cone, 2009, installed at California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. | A video of a jaguar plays inside the Listening Cone. (via Ezra Magazine)

Soon after the "Listening Cone" was installed, Lin's traveling exhibit "The Empty Room" debuted at the Beijing Center for the Arts, with corresponding debuts at Salon 94 in New York City and the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. Cornell University's Chronicle describes the exhibit:

It features an empty room with pinholes in the floor that project the short, looped videos toward the ceiling. Visitors will carry a thin, clear screen that lights up with images when held above the pinhole.

"'The Empty Room' really speaks to the notion of absence -- that there is nothing physical about this exhibit and that the form is the information -- a visitor is able to hold a species in their hands," said Lin.

Maya Lin, What is Missing? The Empty Room, 2009, installed at the Beijing Center for the Arts, China. | Photo by Matthew Niederhauser. © Maya Lin Studio, Inc., courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York. (via Flickr / WBUR)

The videos on display in both the "Listening Cone" and "Empty Room" installations are the main content pieces for the memorial. They're all available online at with just a click on a colored dot on the world map. The videos have stunning images from all over the world with text overlays describing the magnitude of the problems facing each video subject. The current iteration of the online world map and videos are the first part of Lin's larger "Map of Memory" project within the What is Missing? memorial. The intention is to make the map interactive by next year, and allow "individuals to contribute a specific memory of places and things they have witnessed disappear in their lifetimes, to create a living memorial to the planet."

"Each dot on the Map of Memory represents a species, place, or natural phenomenon that has disappeared or significantly diminished. Clicking on a colored dot on the map will open a video that tells a story of the animal, habitat, or concept it represents." (screenshot and text via

The videos are short, well produced, and have good facts about endangered species and habitats. I encourage you to look through them. The sort of 'overview' video of the memorial appeared on MTV's billboard in New York City's Times Square this past Earth Day, and is embedded below the following image.

Creative Time presented Maya Lin AT 44 1/2 video art on MTV's HD screen in Times Square, April 15-30, 2010. The videos aired at the top of every hour. For more information on AT 44 1/2, please visit their website. (image of billboard captured at

Another video worth watching is the "Unchopping a Tree" video that concentrates on the the issue of deforestation specifically. It shows different urban parks around the world along with statistics on how quickly they would be destroyed based on current deforestation rates, and asks "If deforestation was happening in your city, how quickly would you work to stop it?" The video ends with a reverse animation of a felled tree being 'unchopped' and points out that not chopping a tree or planting a new one is really the only realistic option. The final message is that through saving trees we can reduce emissions and save species. "Together we can save two birds with one tree."

Maya Lin, What is Missing? Unchopping A Tree, 2009. Produced by @radical media. © What is Missing? Foundation. (images above are screenshots of the last few frames of the video, which show a tree being "unchopped")

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Maya Lin spoke at MIT on 10/12/10 and ended with this work. Afterwards, I suggested that she talk with Bill McKibben and I'm hoping that they can combine efforts.

Posted by: gmoke on 12 Oct 10

Another memorable "what is missing" picture would be of lonely Eldey Island visible from the southwest coast of Iceland. Here the last breeding colony of the great auk, a kind of northern hemisphere penguin, was destroyed by men in 1844. Photos of how this haunted place looks from the Iceland coast, disturbing pictures because of the history, at

Posted by: John S. Niles, Seattle on 18 Oct 10

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