How do you illustrate the complexities of the mind, especially mental health symptoms that are so internalized? It’s a difficult design problem, and one that perhaps explains why many creatives have historically shied away from creating visual depictions of mental health issues. But recent grad Qieer Wang, who received her illustration MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2016, might have an answer.
Wang, who now lives in Brooklyn and works as an independent illustrator, animator, and tattoo artist, has combined her interest in the body and in movement in an intriguing study on mental disorders, rendered as a set of GIFs called “Utopia in Dystopia.” We’re mesmerized by the way her wirey line-drawings explore mental health conditions in seemingly simple animations.
Wang has turned to surrealism to invoke the mind and its darker inner-workings, creating illustrations that seek to dispel stigma and shine light on isolating sensations. This approach reminds me of illustrator Zoe Emma’s 2014 black and white works on depression, and the evocative way she used faceless characters and doubling in a world of blankness to communicate feelings of separation and loss. Emma’s works are mysterious and indirect; but Wang often draws on the exact wording of symptoms to create her thumbnails—for Bi-Polar, a figure is literally ripped into two; for Anxiety, a body fragments and twitches to illustrate relentless body movements and an inability to focus.
“My list of studies is from a professional mental health group, the National Alliance on Mental Illness,” says Wang. “I start every GIF with their explanations.” Autism was especially difficult to illustrate—not because the term is abstract, but because symptoms so dramatically vary from person. “I watched YouTube video interviews with those with autism and I did several interviews,” says Wang, “thinking mainly about how Autistic people behave and how they interact with others.”
Other GIFs aren’t representative of states defined as metal health disorders; instead, they’re issues that involve the mind and self-perception, like Cosmetic Surgery or Self-Identity. “As for those few GIFs that aren’t talking about mental health, they’re something that I discuss with friends and feel connected with. For self-identity, the mirror is used to reflect the character’s real thoughts.”
What’s particularly interesting about this projects is the combination of entirely subjective difficulties with medical definitions. “I have personal reasons for choosing some specific subjects,” continues Wang. “For the suicide piece for example, I chose a pear for the head because I cut my finger while peeling its skin once.”
The GIFs are poetic in places, dream-like in others, yet essentially specific visual descriptors. They’re also in a style that is utterly Wang’s own: a promising strength for such a recent grad.