The last thing Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo did was build a vulnerable monument to a failure, and tear it down. It was an empty see-through structure made out of metal scaffolding and blue netting, perched in the desert above the Columbia River Gorge all summer.
Visitors stood inside and looked out in all directions, climbed the stairs to the top, sometimes pushing against high winds and teetering around the flimsy planks. Thousands of lightning bolts struck one night, and a 150-foot black dust devil rose from near some Dumpsters where rattlesnakes hang out, sweeping the roof off the makeshift welcome hut. On the last day, October 1, the first day of hunting season, a man pushing a bloody deer in a wheelbarrow stopped by out of curiosity. He recoiled when Han and Mihalyo explained this was an art project.
Then the artists—who work together under the name Lead Pencil Studio—climbed the scaffolding, cut the zip ties that attached the netting, let go, and watched their work fly off with the wind before they gathered it all up and drove away.
"Not every architect gets to see their building destroyed," Mihalyo says.
The project was called Maryhill Double. It looked straight across the gorge at its twin, Maryhill Museum of Art. (They rebuffed the artists when they first proposed planting the double on the museum's back lawn, up against the original.) But once these artists get an idea, they don't let go. "I would wake up at three or four in the morning, gasping for air, like, I really want this to happen," Han says.
Maryhill Double was the culmination of 15 years of working separately, and then together, as artists and architects. It sympathized with the half-realized vision of Samuel Hill, who built the concrete mansion in the middle of the desert as the center of a Quaker farm community and a homestead for his family. In the end, nobody came—not Quakers, farmers, or the wife and kids. Hill's friends in high places saved Maryhill and turned it into a museum showing chess sets from around the world, Native-American baskets, Rodin sculptures, American academic paintings, and plaster casts of famous artworks. The place is unreal, and so are its contents, but now there was something equally so, a friend to restart the conversation about the weird and disappointing stuff that happened out here in the middle of nowhere.
The handout the artists gave to people at the Double had a message. "Thank you for taking the time to travel to this temporary space for nothing in the middle of nowhere." Space for nothing: That's a trick. This space may have been for naught in the strictest sense, but it was never empty.
Han and Mihalyo don't clear out spaces for some kind of bland blank Zen thing, don't disappear into some pseudo-spiritual formalist fog. They restore narrative to geometry and geography, and bodies to buildings and places. They turn an eye-glazing tourist afternoon at Maryhill into a conflict, an investigation, and ultimately a duplication of the compulsion to create despite blatant resistance.
Their art is deeply humanist, but they never draw figures or sculpt them, and they never leave fingerprints, even though they make everything. Repetition and reduction are their tools. But if they are minimalists, it is in the antihermetic vein of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, with his piles of candy and stacks of papers, or Gordon Matta-Clark, with his "anarchitectural" operations on derelict buildings. Their forms are oblique enough to produce new narratives, and rooted enough in history and location to refresh old ones. They can bring on phenomenological or perceptual shifts, like the California light-and-space artists, but their work is less optical, even less bodily, more cerebral and linguistic.
"Space is about anything," Han says. "How we live. How we look at things. It's about everything."
In January, they'll transform the floor above the downtown Ross Dress for Less store into an installation. In March, they have a show at Lawrimore Project (which they designed, in addition to signing onto the roster). They keep potential ideas and the details of their collaborations secret; for instance, sitting in their his-and-hers studio on the top floor of the house they designed and built together, they'll share two different failed visions for a single project, but they won't say which one was whose. If any idea is too singly owned by either of them, they reject it. But people forever ask them who does what.
"I bring in history every time," he says.
"I'm much more abstract," she says.
"Reductive? Yeah, okay."
When Lawrimore asked to represent them, their first response was, "Why?" Han says. "We didn't want to have anything to do with making things to sell." They already have a way to pay the bills: architecture.
Like the "anarchitect" Matta-Clark, Han and Mihalyo are trained architects who in many ways reject the conventions of their chosen profession. They're not divas—in fact, they're quiet, skeptical, and earnest—but they dream of clients who'd want rooms where they'd do nothing but, say, cry in. They're architects the way Roy McMakin is a furniture designer.
They met while studying architecture at the University of Oregon. They still practice, but their ratio of art to buildings has risen steadily since they showed the sculpture Inversion I four years ago at the Center on Contemporary Art. Now up at Lawrimore Project, Inversion I is a cloud of melded wire with volumes built strictly from line, as in a Giacometti painting. (They still consider it a model for an installation the size of a football field.) Linear Plenum, their 2004 installation of 19,000 strings hung in Suyama Space following the shape and function of the room, earned them a show at Henry Art Gallery last year.
There, they installed the ghosts of two trapezoidal building footings under a canopy of regraded "ground" to emphasize the subterranean space. The footings were made of thousands of translucent white strips of paper-thin plastic, shining in the dim room and reaching out, in the exchange of air, to brush passers who got close. The physical contact was breathtaking. It's not precisely what Charles Mudede meant when he described the installation as "social" in these pages, but there's a connection. This art lives in the same world we do.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story, which appeared in print on October 19, incorrectly stated that Maryhill "directors did everything in their power to prevent Maryhill Double." More accurately, the Maryhill Museum of Art repeatedly rejected the artists' proposal to put Maryhill Double on the museum's grand lawn.