Maya Lin's Time For Light

Maya lin works minor miracles. As a 21-year-old undergraduate architecture student at Yale in 1980, she submitted the winning design for the magnificently conciliatory Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her simple, noble granite Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. (1989), conveys both the uniqueness and universality of that struggle without compromising either. Now, in a purely apolitical sculpture called "Eclipsed Time," Lin will give some civilized relief to an ugly urban space -- the subterranean Penn Station in New York.

The sculpture, which will be unveiled in mid-August, is technologically sophisticated, yet visually simple. Hovering above the heads of commuters, in an elliptical recess in the ceiling, is what looks like a glowing flying saucer, 14 feet wide. It's really a translucent glass disc, illuminated from on top by hundreds of fiber-optic light points. Between the points of light and the glass disc, a parallel disc, this one metal, slides slowly back and forth, casting a moving shadow. The shadow's edge sweeps over numerals 1 through 11, etched on the outside of the glass, indicating the time of day. But don't try to make your train by it: "Eclipsed Time" will be accurate only to within 15 to 30 minutes. "This piece is really purely about perceptual experience," says the artist in an interview in her downtown-Manhattan studio.

Such high-flung explanations may obscure the fact that Lin, in all her work, is reaching ordinary people. She's practical, too: "A hundred thousand people might pass through there, so you've got to do an art work that you can't touch, that won't get in your way, or obstruct views."

Lin, 34, the daughter of a ceramicist father and a mother who's a poet, has been working on "Eclipsed Time" for the past five years, ever since she decided "never to get typecast as someone who does memorials. Am I going to be forever the person who deals with the nation's grief?" A self-described "turtle" who recedes into anonymity after the publicity surrounding each new work, Lin will complete a "pure earth sculpture" at the University of Michigan in September. She'll also finish two houses she designed -- in Massachusetts and California -- this year. And she's in the preliminary design phase of a paper-recycling plant project for the South Bronx. All of this raises the question: is Lin an artist or an architect? Given her ability to maintain her esthetic integrity in a string of projects that have won over both critics and the public, magician is more like it.