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  • What is Missing:Cataloguing the End
  • Sarah Chihaya (bio)


If you're not there already, go to a computer. If it's sleeping, perhaps you might catch your own eye in the screen's black mirror for an uncanny flicker in that moment before it flashes awake. Open a web browser and go to A darkened map of the planet greets you: midnight-black cutouts of landmasses drop out of a dusk-black backdrop of water. Is this monochrome world alive or dead? Is it the fantastical image of an enchanted night that has fallen across the whole world—or is it the endless night of the world's end? We cannot say. It is beautiful, if not a little frightening.

A swarm of tiny colorful pinpoints scatters slowly across the map, also beautiful, twinkling gently as the points slowly fade in and out. A legend at the bottom of the page tells us somewhat cryptically what the different kinds of colored dots and swirls indicate: "TIMELINE," "VIDEO," "STORIES," "CONSERVATION," "DISASTER."

Click on these dots and you will see that each contains the miniaturized record of a disappearance, slow or sudden, partial or complete, of an animal, plant, place, or natural phenomenon. For example, aiming somewhat haphazardly for my location in Brooklyn, I click first on a whorl that brings up an illustrated pocket history of the Heath hen, from its role as a staple of the Plymouth Colony diet to its extinction in 1932. Another nearby click calls up a timeline of the Hudson [End Page 571] River, in headlines that are alternately depressing ("General Electric still leaves PCBs in the River," 2015) and hopeful ("Sturgeon Recovery Looks Optimistic," 2016). A random click across the world summons up a video encounter with the forest elephant of Central Africa, accompanied by the vivid soundtrack of the elephant and its lively surroundings (birds, insects, the rush and rustle of leaves). Lingering for a second over an orange dot somewhere in Australia makes my computer erupt with the ill-tempered grunt of koalas; a green dot north-northeast of the koalas emits the misleadingly serene burbles of the dying coral reef. These videos and timelines are interspersed with other dots that conjure viewer-contributed personal memories and images of things either disappeared or disappearing. Leafy green target symbols represent timelines of conservation projects; they are, unsurprisingly, vastly outnumbered by multicolored constellations of disaster, endangerment, and disappearance.

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Figure 1.

Maya Lin, What Is Missing? Map of Memory (2010–) Image courtesy of the artist.

This nocturnal map, with its pinprick sinkholes of time, is the work of artist Maya Lin. Titled What is Missing? and unveiled in 2012, Lin has declared [End Page 572] it to be her final memorial project. The map I just described (designated the "map of memory") is a grim work that unravels as it progresses, for perversely, the more the black map is filled in with color, the more depleted is the actual planet. It is perhaps fitting that this call for conservation begins with a darkened world; the black background of Lin's last memorial is reminiscent of her first: the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. This self-reflective reference asks viewers of both pieces what kind of work a "memorial" might do. The image of the viewer, reflected and reflecting, is visible in the benighted backdrop of What is Missing just as it is in the glossy gabbro surface of the Vietnam memorial wall. However, while the latter is an unanswered roll call of the silent and inaccessible dead, in which the viewer sees the image of her own mourning, the former is a strangely indeterminate interpellation. It is at once a thrilling call to act now (a series of icons at the top are loaded with an overwhelming abundance of facts, statistics, and suggestions for individualand policy-level action), and a grim, shaming enumeration of volumes of irrecoverable losses—the bad things we have already done and cannot undo. The website is, in a sense, both a desired beginning (of new conservation movements) and an inevitable end...


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pp. 571-593
Launched on MUSE
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