This week, as unlikely as it may sound, she officially adds yet another label: Vegas headliner. And she's as weirded out by it as anyone.
"I never would have figured being in Las Vegas," the 51-year-old mother of two said in a phone interview from New York. Lin, of course, is best known for winning the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., while still a 21-year-old Yale student. "The fact that I just forgot to try playing a slot machine when I was there tells you where my head's at. Again, it is what it is."
What it is, though, is an 87-foot-long representation -- cast in reclaimed silver -- of the entire length of the Colorado River hanging luminously over the registration desk of the Strip's newest megaresort, Aria.
The 4,004-room hotel, which opens Wednesday night, has all the trappings of Vegas resorts these days, from the buffet to the casino to an elegant spa and fancy star-chef restaurants. There's even a Cirque du Soleil show featuring the music of Elvis Presley.
"We needed to make a big statement that CityCenter is different, that Vegas is different now," MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren said. "And we've done that."
Murren allocated $40 million for a public art program at CityCenter, which also includes commissioned works by Jenny Holzer, Richard Long and Nancy Rubins, as well as acquisitions of seminal pieces by Henry Moore, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg.
Yet Lin, who received an estimated $3 million to create "Silver River," is clearly the best-known figure. She won't be attending the opening, but when she came to Vegas earlier this year to install it, she seemed giddy with anticipation about how it would be received.
"This is not my typical venue, so one of the curiosities will be to see whether people coming here are curious enough to ask what it is, if people ask why is she focusing on the Colorado River," Lin said then, as crews assembled the piece that traveled to Las Vegas in three pieces from the New York warehouse where she created it. "That's something that is a little bit of interest to me, to see how people react to a work of art that is pointedly focusing on an environmental issue within Las Vegas.
"My gut is some people are going to walk right by it, they'll think it's a pretty sculpture, they won't know its content, and others will take a look at the plaque or want to a little bit more. And some will get it, will say, 'Oh wow, that's Lake Mead, that's Lake Powell.'"
Lin said she chose to represent the Colorado River because its water is key to the prospering of the American Southwest but also because she's already shown a fascination with rivers. Among her other projects is one made from stainless-steel pins that represents the length of the Yangtze River. The piece was installed last year at the United States Embassy in Beijing. She's also been working for years along the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington to create works that are part of a memorial to Native American history in that region.
The fact that every building at CityCenter including Aria has gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was one of the key selling points to recruiting Lin, the artist said. But it was also exciting to her for her creation to be in the company of so many other significant artists because usually her work stands by itself. "Very rarely do you get to live with a lot of other artists around," she said about her art..
Lin is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who fled the Communist Revolution and settled in Ohio, where she was born. She became one of the nation's best-known contemporary art figures with the Vietnam Memorial. She views the Aria sculpture as another memorial of sorts, one to an ecosystem in great flux that may soon disappear. As she worked on "Silver River," she was also in the process of creating a new multiform memorial called "Missing," which is still in progress and involves documenting things in the natural world that are vanishing.
"It's almost a memory of what you remember that's changed, what your parents remember, what we don't even realize has changed because it's happened in front of our eyes and we just don't even notice or realize," Lin said of the project.
"Did you know that some of the top 20 songbirds when we were kids are in 70 percent decline? So, literally, the sounds we heard as children, that landscape of sound has completely changed. 'Missing' will be a book, a Web site, a couple of tables of information that will be in a couple of different locations. You think of a monument that's a single static object, and I'm going to create something that literally can jump form."
She seems equally jazzed -- if a little surprised -- about her newfound Vegas stardom. To show just how un-Vegas Lin truly is, she groused that she needed to find "the right finish" for the exterior of "Silver River" because "you don't want it to be too gaudy" -- as if such a thing is possible in Vegas.
But she feels like she has a part to play in changing Vegas' image. It's been 11 years since the Bellagio opened its art gallery of Renoirs, Monets and Cezannes. CityCenter's scale and ambition have the potential, she thinks, to engage people who otherwise might not deliberately take in artwork.
"My attitude is where does art belong?" she said. "We shouldn't be segregating art out from the public view. It's great to have art in museums and that's a great venue, but I also think that it's kind of nice to come across art where you least expect it sometimes."