Inner and Outer Space: Annie Wang Creates Place for the Mind and Body

Interview by: Jessie Solmon

Annie Wang,  artist and design associate at MASS Design Group in Boston, believes in creating for others. Throughout her career, Wang has had an obsession with hiding places. Her personal experience plays a role in her desire to create rooms where people can have a connection with the psychological and physical aspects of the space around them. With an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Architectural Design at the University of Toronto, and a graduate degree from Harvard’s GSD, this thread weaves through her work in unexpected ways.

Wang believes in the power of architecture and designing physical spaces, despite occasional disillusionment with industry. While advocating for a return of an ethos of service to architecture, her practice has broadened to include an alluring collection of tumblrs, sketches, collages, paintings, and even haircuts. 

In November 2017, Wang had her first exhibition, curated by Point Line Projects. Collage City: Memory, Experience, and Depicting Dreams was a series of digital collage works inspired by her vivid dreams. In our conversation, we go through the many aspects of Wang’s life and career that makes her work unique and enchanting.

Jesse Solomon: How did you become interested in architecture?

Annie Wang: I developed an interest in design because I’ve never fully believed in producing work purely for myself. With design, I’m working in service of someone else. Architecture, at least the way I believe in practicing it, fits into that. Earlier in my education, I was pursuing a career in psychology, but I realized my interest in psychology and design could both feed into architecture. At the University of Toronto I focused on learning how people feel in a space and exploring the connection between the invisible and physical elements in the spaces we inhabit. 

I’m very sensitive to this relationship because I struggled with a lot of mental health issues as a child. This part of me isn’t something that a lot of people know about, but my first reaction to trauma is to internalize it, to bury it deep inside. Spatially, this means looking for spaces to hide. If you’re an introverted person and going through a hard time, the last thing you want is to be around other people. Exploring the places that people hide in during moments like these has been an obsession my entire career.

MASS Design Group’s The Writing on the Wall installation at the High Line in New York City.

black and white text with sections blacked out, displayed on a pale gray wall outdoors

MASS Design Group has the mission to “research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” In your work at MASS, do you have opportunities to explore those “hiding places,” or spaces that provide moments of privacy, solitude, and reflection?

Not directly, but I think that the importance of “hiding places” works its way into everything. One project that I worked on is an installation on view at the High Line in New York called The Writing on the Wall. We’re working with the artist Hank Willis Thomas and the activist and academic Dr. Baz Dreisinger on a project about giving voices to the incarcerated. Dreisinger started the Prison-to-College pipeline program at John Jay College in New York. Her students are all residents of the Otisville Correctional Facility. She’s been collecting all of the letters written from students of hers for almost ten years. This was the second version of this art piece and when we spoke with the artist, we learned that the most important thing spatially was that it was in a room. The room allowed people to stop, sit down, and be with the writing. Our design is the size of a prison cell, which is part of the concept, but also about creating a space that people can pause in. You’re not stuck in this high traffic area; you can retreat and connect during a quiet moment. It’s really emotional reading these things. I’m excited about the content of this installation.

Wang’s self portrait using gel pen and ink.

a gel pen and ink portrait of Wang - she has long black hair and a questioning look on her face

Do you consider yourself more of a designer or an artist?

I used to tell myself I was whatever I made a living from. Way back it was easier to make that decision because I got paid to design, and I didn’t get paid to make art. But in recent years I’ve begun to be offered real commissions, so I’ve had to go back and ask myself this question again. I don’t really have an answer as to which I’m more of, but I try my best not to wear both hats at the same time. Why it is that I choose to separate the two? My decision is that in whatever I spend most of my time, I want to have as direct a connection as I can to how I’m benefiting the other person. When I’m making art I want to preserve the sense that it’s pure and for myself.

You’ve lived and traveled all around the world, from Australia to China to Canada, and now you’re based in Boston, MA. Do your international experiences and travels influence your work?

I have a couple of narratives about how it’s influenced me.

Honestly, it’s made me a huge complainer! I have lived in all these places and it’s made me hyper aware that things are better somewhere else. Also, these experiences have made me more aware of how subjective things, experiences, and items can be. For example, when I was in high school I spent a few months in China. I remember Nan Chang felt like the smallest place I had ever lived in. I lived on the twelfth floor of a highrise, there were no elevators, and there was a tiny hot water unit that we could turn on once a week. I showered maybe once a week and even though I lived in this tall building, it felt like the most rural and isolating place ever. 

Five years after living there I went back to Nan Chang and learned that the city had a population of nearly seven million people. I remember so clearly being confined in this tiny rural space, so the facts don’t match up. This is something that really interests me about architecture as well as my personal work; the way that a state of mind impacts our memory and experience of a place. I’m very much a phenomenologist in this way; I believe that an individual’s experience is the truth.  

Digital collage from Wang’s Dream Diary collection.

a digital collage of a room of gray columns with a giant hole in the ceiling and floor - a person stands in front of the hole with one leg extended

In 2017, Point Line Projects curated a show your Dream Diaries in the exhibition Collage City: Memory, Experience, and Depicting Dreams at Assemble in Pittsburgh. Two years later, how do you reflect on your dream-inspired art?

I’ve always preferred images over words. Ideas also tend to come to me in images much faster. To me, this relates to dreaming—dreams are a visual realm that we experience before we have to think through an idea or event and apply words to it. I pay a lot of attention to my dreams. I think, in part, this may be related to an earlier time in my life when I had a really difficult relationship with sleep. As a teenager I would purposefully pull an all-nighter every other night to make art. Sleeping felt like a waste of time. When I was in China, I had these vivid dreams. Part of it was nicotine withdrawal. When I was about fifteen years old I was hooked on cigarettes and my brother had given me nicotine patches. You’re not supposed to wear them while you sleep, but I did anyway. I remember having these wild dreams about running around the city looking for cigarettes. Now, it sounds hilarious. 

At other times my dreams have been my hiding place. During times where I’ve been really depressed, I wished I could hide in my dream state forever. During these times, people suggested I make a dream diary. I learned in a foundational psychology class that no one has a really strong explanation for why we dream, only strong intuitions. The symbolism of it all, which escapes science, is what fascinates me about keeping a dream diary. Writing down my dreams felt too explicit, so I decided to use images to catalogue my dreams. 

I decided to make dream collages for two reasons. First, they’re fast to make. Second, I find collaging relies so much on intuition. I’ve been an image collector my whole life. My collections are digital. At one point I had maybe thirty different Tumblr blogs, and I would save images to each of them. It was this realm where I could look at an image that caught my attention and just intuitively say, “this image fits into this specific Tumblr.” Collaging helped me avoid being stuck and make my dreams make sense.

Earlier you said you lost faith in the architecture industry. What did you mean by this?

Architecture practice is awful. Every couple of years, I find myself thinking “Why am I still in architecture?” For a while, I was madly searching for ways out, but I had a realization that I do believe in it. I believe in the value of designing spaces, even if I don’t believe in the industry. I think architects regard architecture as a profession aligned with doctors and lawyers. But the most important thing if you’re a doctor or a lawyer is to take care of your client. I find that really beautiful. That’s what makes you a professional. 

In architecture we say this, but in practice it doesn’t happen. There’s always a sense that the architect knows better. But the client is paying you, so why are we treating clients like they’re stupid? We’re designing something for them to live in. So many big projects are art pieces—which there’s nothing wrong with—unless you’re doing it at the cost of the quality of life of your client, which I find immoral. 

First, you do something that gives your client the best product they can get. Then if you want to make it into an art project, go ahead. There’s also the whole issue with the way that payment is set up. Typically you get a percentage of the construction cost. The architect is basically incentivized to make the project more expensive. I find it problematic that architects make no money because we take almost no risk, but we also work our asses off. It’s a very unhealthy work environment; we’re very bad at advocating for ourselves. If I hadn’t come to MASS to work, I probably would have left architecture. Most of my colleagues here share similar frustrations.

For Wang, cutting hair is a newfound creative outlet.

a black and white photo off Annie in the middle of cutting someone's hair

What are you currently working on in your free time, and what do you plan on working on next?

I’ve been doing a lot of hair cutting as another form of creative output. I started telling stories about the “cliente,” and it turned into my own little typology of stories, using Instagram, about the haircuts. Someone told me that I should make a portfolio, so I started photographing my process and then I developed that further, by writing stories about the people whose hair I cut. I have really good and personal conversations with people when I’m cutting their hair. I honestly think that’s a big reason why people come to me. I hadn’t really thought about it as an art project until now, but I think it is; it’s a very specific output that I’m creating. I process the photographs in a certain way. They all are Instagram stories, so they disappear after a while. People have asked me to save them and catalogue them. I might well do that as a kind of new age photography project.

How do you feel that your work impacts your audience, and how do you hope to impact them? 

There’s a part of the brain that we have no way of using words to explain. I find that so fascinating. I had some ink pen drawings that I was doing a lot in early 2008. That was a really tough time in my life because I was dealing with bad depression. I was really quiet, but then when I got better, I started talking so much. I started talking to people and reaching out. All I wanted was for people to know that if they were suffering, I’d been there too and it was okay. My images are based around the theme that there’s a lot of people suffering. 

If it resonates with someone, I’d like to have them feel that they are connecting to something bigger. That it’s not an isolated, individual thing they’re experiencing, because that’s what really killed me for so long; it was this feeling that I was the only one in the world that felt that way. Maybe it’s that Buddhist idea in which people are connected through their suffering. It’s a human condition. Having people realize that is one thing that I care about. 

Featured image: Wang at her 2017 exhibition Collage City: Memory, Experience, and Depicting Dreams at Assemble in Pittsburgh.

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