A conversation with Anne Wu

By Eve O’Shea

Still from “Holding Breath” exhibition at the NARS Foundation, October 9 – 30, 2020 

Sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist Anne Wu talks about the work made at her recent Satellite residency at the NARS Foundation at Governor’s Island. She describes her practice and methodology as well as her piece in the exhibition Holding Breath.


EOS: I wondering what the role of chance has in your work or how intention plays into your choice of which architectural elements to represent?

AW: Yeah, I think that’s sort of how I entered this — I guess the way of working originally was doing a lot of walks around my neighborhood, looking at the built environment and happening upon different elements or structures that seems overlooked. It’s never like the magnificent building, or like, you know, some impressive public sphere. More like, something that’s kind of like wonky, and I wonder: how does it fit in, how does it butt up against some other kind of structure? There’s always an element of the touch, or some sort of human intervention, and possibly a little bit of, you know, decay related to that sort of imagery. So in that sense, there was a lot more “chance” or walking around in the sense of discovery and exploration. I think that over time, I have noticed that in general, I lean towards these elements that I mentioned earlier, but also specific structures that suggest a threshold or some sort of movement.

Once you have that honed in, then it starts coming more frequently. In a space like this, I was looking at brick and mortar, because it’s like, literally, so overwhelmingly part of the landscape. It’s so ubiquitous that it has no identity at all. Whereas in the past, I would maybe focus in on an element, because I’m trying to learn or trying to highlight one small aspect of it, and blowing that up, but in this case it’s just like, all around… So I guess there is a sense of chance. Because you know, if there are all concrete blocks around me, that might be what I would be responding to. So I think of chance as it relates to observation.

EOS: Another question I had was what I heard you talk about briefly in the studio visit — what motivates your choices regarding scale and color and your work? I was looking at your previous work and at this work as well — there are some pieces that are to scale, but then there will be one element that is a different color, like the piece that is in the show. I was wondering how you make those decisions.

AW:  I think I use color as a way to add, potentially an element of foreignness, or just like a sense of the unknown. Because of how it relates to the hand, instead of just emulating things completely. Not being a direct copy of something. I’m always searching for little moments to play with these objects that would otherwise just be really close copies, because they are the same scale, they’re not really small or really, really large. I also relate the use of color to the use of, or the addition of small objects, whether they’re cast or found.

It’s a way for me to create this connective tissue between these built structural elements and the human aspect of it, or like the lived experience around it. So whether it’s an artifact of daily life or something else — in previous works that would be, you know, some kind of discarded container or a thing like that. In this case, it’s actual bricks. Wanting those to be a little markers of some kind — human impressions within this structure that could potentially be the void of that.

Still from “Holding Breath” exhibition at the NARS Foundation, October 9 – 30, 2020 

The way that I work on small objects is so different, or the way that I choose color — so different than, like building. I kind of feel like I have two different minds as I’m working.

One I would call building and the other would be like, making. And that’s something very different. I’m thinking of other ways to incorporate that and ways of, you know, joining that. At the moment, it’s a lot of things next to each other, because that’s kind of how I observed it in the world, walking around, and the things that stopped me in my tracks aren’t pristine.

“Building,” it’s not about architecture, actually, it’s more about architecture as it relates to social life, all the documents of history, social conditions, or human experience. And that could be related to a way of making too — one has a certain amount of planning involved in a certain relationship to the world. And the other one is more perceptive, or like, you know, imaginative and more open or playful. Now, the two of them live together.

EOS: Given the one to one scale, do you see the sculptures as replicas? Or models? Or as an entirely separate thing? Because it has this parallel with the original and yet it’s a fragment. And it’s been altered to reflect something, there’s a psychological element to it — how do you relate it to the original?

AW: I always use the word recreation, as opposed to replication or even model, because I think there’s flexibility in that term. It references the original while leaving the room for it to be its own thing. Sometimes that comes up when I’m casting something that feels much closer. And so it’s sort of like on the asymptote of like, “what is recreation?” Sometimes the terms fall much closer to when it’s really similar to the original, so there’s movement along that – that relationship of like what is actually a copy or what’s artificial, as opposed to you know, the authentic and real.

Because I think that is something that comes up that’s like a through line in every aspect of the of the work here — you know, I’m not really an artist that kind of just like makes up something, it’s always rooted in something that’s real or on the ground; I’m stretching that relationship.

EOS: That’s related to another thing I was going to ask, which is the site specificity of this piece – here you’ve found inspiration from walking around. How much of your work is about where you are currently and how much of it is about memories or history?

AW: That’s a really good question. I think that part of that’s honestly one of the things that I’m talking about that work, it’s based on a certain kind of experience I’m trying to grasp, but it’s not, you know, it’s not a work about Governor’s Island. I think it’s more of a work that’s less related to the site of Governor’s Island and more about going to a new place and feeling stuck out and feeling like you don’t have stable ground. And using the experience of being on a site like this to be the jumping off point. I think that’s a really important distinction, when I’m making any work.

Yeah, as I said earlier, there is always going to be a movement between what’s observed and what’s perceived. So, along the two points of observation perception in their, like, open field, that I feel I can, like move around in. Because in this work, it’s like, I couldn’t have thought of this specific emotion, depicted through a way that the form is existing in space without having gone here and done this for the past three months.

However, the actual structure isn’t based on like an exact building that I saw. That sort of location-specific aspect isn’t as important to me, as it is about, ‘this was a three-month experience on this place that I hadn’t really gone to before.’ And my way of getting there was so unusual, you know, for me. So I think I could probably say that about previous works as well, even the ones in which I did, you know, try to replicate something much more directly. It’s never possible. And so that’s where memory or elements of perception is meant to fill in those gaps.

EOS: This is really interesting. I really like the concept of the fragment – what do you think about that in relation to your work?

AW: I remember having a conversation with another writer — there’s a lot of artists who are interested in architecture as an idea, and you have to be really specific about it — what it is about, this idea of like, the building, because, you know, I was making a distinction between, like, the magnificent building, or like the building as ideology, as opposed to the metaphorical or the psychological aspects of it. And he had this distinction that was more about like, perception of the built environment — it’s two terms. One is like, you look at things horizontally, versus like, vertically. And that could be related to, you looking at a building as a combination or a bunch of bricks, or, or the other way around — a bunch of bricks becomes a building. And I think for me, it’s always more about how it’s made of bricks, like the elements of it, and the parts of it. And I think that’s how I move around and how I perceive things. It’s always this zooming in effect rather than zooming out. And I think that could be related to the fragmented aspects of viewing and, you know, relating that more to a psychological or metaphorical potential. Architecture, you know, you mentioned memory earlier, that’s always something, you know, these like puzzle pieces, something that’s not as concrete as the observed environment. But you also see things, parts of memory and fragmentation, or like memories made up of so many little parts, as opposed to the other way around.

EOS: Yeah, yeah. I totally see that. That is a helpful distinction. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

AW: Like, why does this crumbling brick stop you? Versus like, some people, it’s more about how the height of the building makes them feel? I think those are two very different aspects. And, again, it’s related to perception. You know, a lot of times architecture stands in for that because of its relationship to our body. And our eyes. I think sometimes it’s like, it could maybe even be broken down to like, do you experience architecture through your eyes, or your body? And I think, maybe, there’s some slight difference there.