Entering into the Asheville Art Museum’s gallery space, I pass by Maya Lin’s Pin River—French Broad River. A blank wall dotted with steel pins, this piece is a minimalist depiction of the vast waterway which has defined this region. The French Broad River runs from the mountains of Western North Carolina to Knoxville, TN, where the currents merge to form the Tennessee River. Standing before this piece, I’m reminded of where I am geographically as if I were looking at a map. While the white wall remains devoid of the typical topographical details, my mind fills in the blanks. I can visualize the diagonal Tennessee–North Carolina border running through the approximate midway of the river. I can imagine U.S. Route 25 paved alongside the currents of the waterway. I can picture the evolution of trade and transportation that the river has facilitated. Lin’s conceptual map alludes to the ways in which this geographic feature has defined the history of this region.
Forged into each hand-pressed steel pin is the intersection of humanity and the environment—the ways in which our lives are inherently tied to the geography around us. From a frontal perspective, the pins form one cohesive flat arcing line. Here, the work is large and all encompassing, taking up the entirety of the huge wall. Looking at it head on, I think about the vastness of the actual French Broad River, and all of the land it traverses—mountains pastures, through cities and small communities. Close-up from the side however, I become aware of the specificity, the individual pins, and the time it must have taken to place each one. In the afternoon, light pours in from the floor to ceiling windows, gleaming off the edges of the silver slivers of metal. My eyes fall into the spaces between each pin. On this scale, the pins remind me of people, and I can’t help contemplating the ways in which individuals have their own unique experiences of the French Broad River, defined by the historical moment in which they’re living. Centuries ago, the Cherokee would have gathered near these waters; later, industrial railways were built parallel to the river’s path; and over time the entire city of Asheville grew alongside the banks.
Pin River—French Broad River is one of several works by Lin that focuses on ecological systems and geographical features. These static works depict fluid and momentous entities, pushing at the limits of what the human mind is capable of conceptualizing. The natural environment exists on a timeline much larger than our own. The French Broad River has enabled many evolutions of human civilization to survive. Hundreds of thousands of people have waded into its currents. Walking past Pin River—French Broad River as I leave the Asheville Art Museum, I think about the slivers of the river that I’ve passed by and the miles of it that I have yet to see. I’m left wondering how distance, time, and water can be embodied in thousands of silver pins.
—Shira Zaid, winter 2021 communications – multimedia storytelling intern