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Sustained Experience: Lead Pencil Studio’s “Diffuse Reflection Lab” by Matt Fajkus, AIA Art + Architecture

With backgrounds in architecture and an impressive repertoire of installation art projects, Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio are well-suited to explore the interstitial space between the fine and applied arts. Their installation “Diffuse Reflection Lab,” at the University of Texas at Austin Visual Arts Center (VAC), is a good example of careful negotiation between the realms of art and architecture. Liberated from the usual prosaic building constraints such as safety standards and waterproofing, the installation is a two-story structure in the VAC’s Vaulted Gallery. An art installation, as opposed to proper architecture, is not responsible for a singular function, and the artists exploit this fact. Han and Mihalyo explain that this freedom enables the distillation of an idea, and that when a specific program and function attached to it are taken away, a space becomes more like a photograph, which doesn’t necessarily need to be useful. The installation thus transcends normative pragmatic architectural modes by stripping away all other artifice so that nothing is left but the absolute essence of the space. Reflection + Surface

The aim of their work is not “high architecture,” nor commentary on the trajectory of contemporary architecture. The artists maintain that their current work has evolved beyond the traditional paradigmatic architectural principles outlined

Temporal Factors

In working with temporary installation artwork, Lead Pencil Studio is forced to confront ephemerality, and the artists actually embrace the temporal factors that come into play. In their previous practice of architecture, they found that their designed spaces changed quickly after being built, which lead to realization that all design, even architecture, is temporary to some degree. The artists agree with Olafur Eliasson’s statement that “the viewer completes the work,” and if it weren’t for the interactive element of their installations, there would be little point in building them. Nonetheless, they acknowledge that photographs and other documentation provide yet another opportunity to frame the project, and that judgment will be cast differently on the work once it lives exclusively in documented form. The artists understand and accept that the work then essentially takes on a second life, with new meanings that were not previously attached to it.

Context + Process

When questioned about the role that context plays in their installation work, the artists explain that they are sometimes fueled by the space itself and draw from it. In the case of the VAC, they reacted to a dynamic space — the adjacent lobby, lecture hall, courtyard with birds chirping, and the abundance of natural light. They embrace these accidental discoveries in the process, as they are not stuck to a predetermined set of plans. In this sense, they operate much like master builders of old — as they have ultimate control over design and construction. When going into a site-specific installation, they are motivated by the challenge of the unknown and find excitement in seeing where the process takes them, while always holding on to the big idea as the inspiration. Phenomenology, Experience, Space

“Diffuse Reflection Lab” challenges assumptions of perception by capturing unexpected angles, views, and readings of space, in an attempt to slow down the viewer. The artwork aims to preserve and capture spatial observation, which is otherwise typically a fleeting experience. The work is not about creating a “wow factor” nor a singular moment, but rather about operating on nuanced terms to create unique perceptual experiences. Thus, phenomenology comes directly into play, arousing one’s senses, reminding us that we’re alive — like a pinch in a dream — and disrupting mindless thoughts and routines, which are ultimately goals of all successful art and architecture.

Left Artists

10 Texas Architect


Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo set up the installation. Right Detail of “Diffuse Reflection Lab” by Lead Pencil Studio, on view at the UT Visual Arts Center through May 11.

in Form, Space, and Order by Francis Ching. Lead Pencil Studio argues that these formal architectural notions are now largely preceded by surface, and rather than the “brick is a brick” mentality set forth by Louis Kahn, they see depth represented by various means. Arguing that meaning is increasingly impacted by experience, surface is explored in this piece primarily for its reflective qualities. “Diffuse Reflection Lab” deals with actual perception and illusion, as reflections are simultaneously real and unreal, conveying brilliant commentary on surface and superficiality. Form is ultimately less important in the work, and the built forms are more infrastructure to prop up or enable reflective surfaces.

3/4 2013

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