Maya Ying Lin designed the emotionally moving and simple “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in 1981. She wanted the memorial to illustrate the honest reality of war. Lin set the V-shaped polished black granite walls into the landscape with a gradual descent toward the center of the monument. The names of the Vietnam War’s 57,939 casualties are recorded on the reflective panels. The way in which Lin decided to portray this memorial causes a split in the way the viewer looks at the work. The renowned theorist Jacques Lacan described these two modes of looking as the eye and the gaze. The reflective quality of the memorial undermines the eye, and the reflection of the viewer gazing back makes the viewer the object of scrutiny and deepens the meaning portrayed.
Initially the viewer approaches the memorial with their eye, rationally studying the work. As the viewer proceeds along the wall, their reflection becomes perceivable. The viewer literally becomes a part of the artwork and their reflection gazes back at them. This gaze cases a disturbance in observing the work. It reminds the onlooker that there is always something beyond their control. The memorial shows that the viewer cannot restrain war, death, or the long lasting scar of violence.
The viewer sees their reflection and recognizes that they are not whole. The eye approaches the memorial with logic, expecting to identify the monument with other honoring monuments. The eye seeks for a stable relationship between the self and the world. The gaze of the viewer however, disturbs this hope and reminds the onlooker that no matter what the eye may seek, there will always be something missing. As the observer becomes increasingly aware of their own lack, they realize the absence that the Vietnam War left in the lives of those close to the soldiers.
When the viewer feels a sense of lack looking at the wall, they immediately desire to recover what is missing. Lin used this reaction to the memorial’s advantage. When the visitor looks upon the wall, his or her reflection is seen simultaneously with the engraved names. This symbolically brings the past and present together. The past war, deaths, heroic soldiers, and mistakes are literally written on the viewer. The observer is forced to remember the soldiers’ sacrifice for their country and then desires to learn from the mistakes of the past and prevent future unnecessary wars and deaths.
Lin’s “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” design is very simple. Its psychological depth communicates the wounds left by the war. The reflective walls focus the visitor’s attention on their own reflective gaze and the names of those that died. It reminds the viewer that the sacrifices of the past are what write the present and future.