Image courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Vox /10

Interview with Lead Pencil Studio

About Lead

Lead Pencil Studio is the working name of the art and installation collaborative founded in 1997 by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo to pursue installation art, site-specific art and functional architecture. They have won a number of awards including 2009 New York Prize by the Van Alen Institute, 2008 Rome Prize Fellowship and 2006 Stranger Genius Award in Visual Art. Their practice is self-described as “architecture in reverse…our projects are everything about architecture with none of its function…spaces with no greater purpose than to be perceived and question the certainty posited by the man-made world”

Annie and Daniel currently reside in Seattle, US.

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Something caught midway

Even though they might not admit it themselves, you would be forgiven in thinking that Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo are deconstructing the world around them. They are perhaps not so much deconstructing as exploring the spaces that we can often take for granted, to pinpoint the idiosyncrasies that might otherwise be overlooked or never seen. Not quite dismantling our notions of space and the built environment but re-constructing it from their own perspective and as such have little limit in terms of scale, their artistic direction and ambition.

Daniel Lingham interviews Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo

Q. Are you architects or artists first and foremost?

Annie Han: Artists.

Daniel Mihalyo: I would agree but place us as rammed up against architecture. Or at least that’s how I feel about myself. We do occasionally practice straight architecture for clients who need design services – so that complicates things a little.  However, as a creative discipline, architecture always feels far too narrowly defined, too pre-determined.  As conventionally practiced and taught, it’s more of an orthodoxy.  It seemed to me that there was a huge amount of territory worth exploring relating to space, buildings, cities, construction, real estate, codes, surveying, land use and politics of building that architecture as a service profession can’t really address critically.  So even though we’re making artwork, most of what we’re excited about relates to qualities inherent in architecture.

"In architecture ... you have a professional responsibility to always have in mind the needs of the client or end user... Fortunately in art, it is totally acceptable to do exactly as you please and for your own reasons"

Q. It makes sense to me to combine art, installation and architecture in a wider spatial approach but some might see a greater distinction between these practices. Do you perceive yourself as catering for very different audiences when you produce sculptural work as opposed to architectural projects?

AH: Yes. While we have completed at least one project that blurred the boundaries of what is typically described as art or architecture, which was the Oregon State Hospital Memorial, I do feel that they are distinctly different disciplines, particularly with regard to intentionality – one is devoid of function and the other is absolutely everything about function.

DM: When we work in museums, galleries and fairs as artists, the audience is definitely expected to be inclined towards art and is prepared to experience art.  When we work in public, the audience isn’t necessarily prepared to encounter art and especially if the work starts to approach the scale of architecture, then I think attitudes change quite a bit. This points to a conundrum for working in public.   Not that we consciously shift outcomes in these different realms, but it is certainly an unspoken factor in working in these hugely different mental environments.  In architecture, as you might imagine, you have a professional responsibility to always have in mind the needs of the client or end user. To do otherwise is an act of malpractice. Fortunately in art, it is totally acceptable to do exactly as you please and for your own reasons. To do otherwise, is its own form of artistic malpractice.

After Dwelling, 2009, Boise Art Museum

Q. You met at the University of Oregon while studying Architecture, given that you both have moved through some artistic disciplines at different times, was it an obvious working partnership or has it been something you had to build and work at?

After Billboard, 2009, Boise Art Museum
After Billboard, 2009, Boise Art Museum

DM:  Well, working on design and architecture came easily.  I think we began collaborating within days of first meeting each other in architecture school and shortly after we began working on a regeneration of an apartment building owned by a thrift store.  There wasn’t much design but we were acting as contractors in exchange for rent.  We helped each other a great deal on studio work throughout school and this was pretty ordinary among friends and couples, probably less so in art school.  For years though, we didn’t collaborate on any independent artwork.  I had my desk and Annie had hers. We did critique each other constantly though and I think this perpetual dialogue, while we were young, helped us to break a threshold.  Our first artistic collaboration was actually a response to an open call for a show by people trained in architecture but making artwork.  We decided to go in on it together.  It was a proposal based project so it wasn’t much different from submitting a proposal for an architecture competition.  That experience was positive and well received which fooled us into thinking further artistic collaboration would be easy.

AH: Early on in our non-architecture collaborations we bickered a lot and began to realize we were wasting a lot of time defending personal territory and not pushing each other to more ambitious places. After a few years we somehow gained confidence as a team and the dialogue got better. The projects got more challenging, our ambitions grew and we were able to apply the skills collaborating on architecture and construction to artwork – but this occurred over a 10 year process and wasn’t something that I would say came easy.

“We wanted to make conceptual artwork that dealt with the subject of architecture…space.  We didn’t care at the end if it resembled a building or a film or what have you.” AH

City Surface, 2012, Plywood, Douglas fir, and latex paint

Q. Did you set out with specific notions of what you wanted Lead Pencil Studio to be?

AH:  We wanted to make conceptual artwork that dealt with the subject of architecture…space.  We didn’t care at the end if it resembled a building or a film or what have you.  We were excited about exploring anything spatial and we wanted to do it without any boundaries or rules.

DM: Well we chose the name as a hedge against a determined end. When we formally left the field of architecture, I don’t think we had clear idea how we were going to survive and figured there would have to be some mix of architecture in there somewhere. The name reflected that ambiguity, but I think we both hoped that we could find a way to develop a body of work that would find its own trajectory. So far anyway, that trajectory has run parallel with a career in art, but there has always been a second trajectory running not-quite parallel with architecture.  The possibility exists for these two to cross occasionally but the world isn’t really setup for that to happen very often.

Q. Working as a partnership do you fit into specific roles in your day to day practice or is your working relationship more fluid or perhaps egalitarian?

DM: Early on, we both did everything, together – all the time. While hugely unproductive, we learned a lot about each other and developed something of a dual personality.  More recently, like the last five years, it has been more possible to interchange roles as needed.  If we’re asked to do something individually such as jury a competition or lead a team of installers, it has become much easier to work apart knowing that the other person has your exact interests in mind. I know more or less exactly what Annie would want in a given situation and I’m sure she would know what I would want. Not that we would always act on behalf of the other, but at least there is less conflict because there is an awareness of the other person at all times.

AH: I’m sure it sounds funny to anyone who works individually even when occasionally collaborating, but we actually do everything together during conceptualization, making, building, fabricating and presenting.  There might be a few instances we divide some tasks, like paperwork or volunteer duty, but the entire process is pretty fluid. We are good critics of each other and our process seems to have formed into this merged role.

Maryhill Double, 2006, Biggs Junction, OR
Maryhill Double, 2006, Biggs Junction, OR

Non Sign II, 2010, Stainless Steel, Canada-US border
Non Sign II, 2010, Stainless Steel, Canada-US border

Q. Do you see yourselves in deconstruction rather than construction in that you present a number of significant pieces that deal with the binary principle of presence and absence such as ‘Maryhill Double’ or ‘non-sign II’ for example?

AH: We can see that quality in our work and it certainly is part of our observing, editing and altering.  I think deconstructing and decoding will always be part of the way we process information. We also add and attempt to reveal a lot of invisible forces that define negative space and voids. For instance, in our work City Surface, we made dozens of parasitic non-architectural forms – normally unseen or unnoticed objects that determine the spatial texture of the urban fabric around us.  We’ve also made work that renders the ephemeral as solid.  I would say most of our projects are definitely more about construction.

DM: I think I would agree. I would place us closer to construction most of the time.  We’re not typically exploring an act of deconstruction unless it concerns weathering or erosion of a physical object.  More often we’re exploring some aspect of the half-built or partially constructed.  Maybe something caught midway or stalled en route to completion or captured in the moment of something presencing.

Q. Are you playing with perception in a way to get the viewer to re-evaluate their sense of objects and spatial awareness?

DM: Yes, I think that is an accurate description.

AH: I would agree too. I think it’s like discovering something new from a person you’ve known for a very long time. However small or strange that discovery may be, it is something that will surprise you and change how you see that person.

“In our projects, we’re often working to create a condition where those invisible surfaces or spaces can be made temporarily legible again.” DM

Accumulation, 2008, Wright Exhibition Space
Accumulation, 2008, Wright Exhibition Space

Q. Can you expand on that a little?

AH: I think spatial perception is that way – we are so close to it and it’s all around us that we don’t even see it most of the time.  When we do see it and see it for the first time it profoundly influences how we observe the space and how we feel about being within it.  I believe people who have had such an experience are more highly attuned to the built environment and typically start to expect more from it, from architecture.

Two Fragments, 2013, Aichi Triennale, Okazaki
Two Fragments, 2013, Aichi Triennale, Okazaki

DM: Often we will alter either material or a spatial quality of a known entity, maybe buildings or places already familiar to a given audience.  When we have done this well and stripped away sufficient information, it seems to aid in reinventing the act of seeing so that the subject can be seen once again without the particular blindness that occurs from repeatedly viewing the same object over and over until it is forgotten.  It seems to us that seeing is often eclipsed by a series of short-hand symbols.  I think we do this as a matter of survival, a way to reduce the importance of things that don’t deserve attention.  In our projects, we’re often working to create a condition where those invisible surfaces or spaces can be made temporarily legible again.

Q. As a partnership do you think you have been able to develop a successful identity within your work? Is there an essence, a core or theme to your practice that is ostensibly Annie and Daniel?

DM: Well the work that has been the most shared and published tends to be the work we’ve become known for.  In our case the success of Maryhill Double and Non-Sign II were global in reach and many folks know us for this work in particular.  There were other works before that which had notoriety to a lesser extent, and still other projects locally that we’ll be forever linked with. That’s one type identity, the type that is defined by others.  There is a greater range of work completed than is publicly available and we know that we should set aside some time to broadcast that a little better, if only to share it with those who might find it interesting.

As for the latter part of that question, it seems that we are apparently much more interested in the spatial container than what is contained. Space, particularly the built-space that is a consequence of architecture, is infinitely compelling to us and we revisit that subject over and over. Some people find in this a melancholy, others see it as a form of criticism and still others see it as an act of longing. I don’t think we would disavow any of those perceptions outright, except to add that we are often celebrating the abject qualities of the built world so that we might better understand what is inadvertently being created by those who make cities.

In Between, 2007, The Exploratorium, SF
In Between, 2007, The Exploratorium, SF

Q. What are you working on at the moment?

AH: We have two group shows at museums this Fall, in Portland and Seattle – both will be large-scale installations, one indoor and one outdoor.

DM: We also have a handful of commission in various stages, some public and some private.  One doesn’t complete until 2020 and one that is due in a month. Like Annie said, we usually have one or two museum shows a year, maybe some gallery work and are usually working on one or two ideas for an independent project like Maryhill Double – requiring grant writing, residencies or fellowship applications to further it along.

Q. What difficulties have you had to overcome in your work or has it always gone to plan?

AH: At the beginning of our art career it was surprisingly difficult to convince galleries and institutions into doing an installation. Maybe because we didn’t have much under our belt or maybe it was the specifics of our project. Proposing ideas for a space was tricky as they often needed to know all the information up-front and we only provided a sketch outline so that the work can develop on-site, like it might otherwise happen in our studio.

DM: When we first started developing projects, there was a frustrating tendency among curators to see us as architects first – due in no small part to the way we pitched ourselves and the prevalence of architecture in our work. That has changed a great deal in the intervening 15 years. When we started out, I don’t know if there was even a single book on Gordon Matta Clark – now there’s at least a dozen. We also developed outside of the academic and professional art centers, and while not exactly self-taught, we’ve had to learn the hard way how to navigate the waters we didn’t know were shark-filled. Anyway, no problem.  We just make our work the way we want to make it and keep making it, all the time getting better at knowing what is possible in any given project opportunity.

“…we are so close to it and it’s all around us that we don’t even see it most of the time.  When we do see it and see it for the first time it profoundly influences how we observe the space and how we feel about being within it.” AH

Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo. Image courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Q. If you could choose one sculptor or artist that Sculptorvox could interview who would that be? i.e. who do you admire, and since there’s two if you maybe you have a different influences?

AH: Doris Salcedo.

DM: Daniel Bozhkov.


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Vox /10 - Thursday, 14th May, 2015


Main image courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Other images courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio

Interview by Daniel Lingham

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