Interview by Mia Dillemuth | Pictures by Emma Sarpaniemi | Artwork by Man Yau | English editor Julie Uusinarkaus
Man Yau portrait by Emma Sarpaniemi.

What initially got you interested in ceramic and glass design? Can you tell us about your professional background? 

When I was 18 years old, I was employed at Uusix Verstaat, where I was working as an assistant ceramics teacher. I had just graduated from high school, and I was wondering whether I should apply to university and to which programme. Ceramics felt like the best option as I had a strong relationship with it already. So I applied and was accepted, and ever since I have worked with ceramics intensively. At the moment I’m just about to finish my Master’s degree at the same school, Aalto University, School of Art, Design and Architecture.

How would you describe your style, your identity as an artist?

Aesthetically my work is colorful, disturbing and dreamlike. Someone once said that my works are very far from a typical Scandinavian style (whatever that means). I use quite strong and dynamic shapes, and I often refer to phenomena of the complex culture we live in by using easily recognizable elements (i.e. skateboards, dildos, nunchakus). The methods I use give a sensitivity to the work, and the careful craftsmanship and the material choices are an important element of the art work.

Man Yau, Air 2017 Colored concrete, wood, spray paint, marble, steel 90 cm x 55 cm x 21 cm. Picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.

In your current exhibition at Huuto Gallery, you have used materials and tools that are new to you. The result is a collection of art work where the human touch is no longer visible. Can you tell us a little bit about your process of working and the ideas behind Delfu?​              

In the beginning of the process I started to sculpt “something” out of wood with my chainsaw in the forest, without really knowing what it would become. Learning the nature of the new material seemed liberating. As I worked in an isolated environment and without a clear plan, it gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on the creating and constructing in its entirety, but also forced me to deal with the relationship with my own artistic identity. Sculpting became a method to produce something in which I can hardly describe in words, and after a while, all of this absurdity started to make sense – at least in my head.  I started to dream about Delfu’s world, I imagined her swimming in the sea, surrounded by glossy and colorful surfaces, and in order to make it actually happen, I needed to work each sculpture to look like there’s no human touch. So all the countless hours spent on those sculptures needed to be hidden so that Delfu and her world would become independent.

The Delfu exhibition is about an illusion of the rational world and the paradox of the artistic work. Lauri Alaviitala, who wrote the text about Delfu, wonderfully caught my idea in which he referred to Albert Camus’ essay dealing the Myth of Sisyphus (Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus [Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942], English translation Justin O’Brien, 1955 ). In Camus’ essay, he concludes that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”, and in Lauri’s text the work of Sisyphus is compared to the artistic work. “A perfect sculpture does not show the hours worked, the versions created, the learning of the nature of the material, the experiments that have been rejected – the fallen boulders. Being sharp-eyed can be torturous, but only continuing one’s work will make one’s victory complete. Every time Sisyphus follows his boulder down into the plain, he becomes more powerful than the boulder.”

The paradox comes when the reality steps in, and I once again realise the absurdity of my own work. One could say that Sisyphus’ fate is everyone’s fate: the workman of today works every day of his life at the​                    same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd.

Man Yau, Delfu 2017 Wood, spray paint, varnish 125 cm x 40 cm x 35 cm. Picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.
Man Yau, Sun 2017 Wood, spray paint, acrylic, steel 85 cm x 90 cm x 6 cm. Picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.

One of the themes in your work is to explore the dynamic between fine art and popular culture. For example, in some pieces at the Delfu exhibition you have mixed marble and spray  paint. What elements do you find eternal in art, and what does modern mean to you? 

That’s a hard question. In my opinion, if something is eternal in art, I would say that it’s a search of an aesthetic for the time we live in. And I don’t mean the shallow aesthetics, but an aesthetics that is really renovating spirituality. A good example of that kind of art piece is something that you feel strongly moved by, to the point that it’s not just thinking about something different, something you cannot put into words, you just feel you are a new, aesthetically sensitive, maybe a different person. The artist generates its image in the world through its myths and icons, reflects to some sort of “spiritual needs”, which consumer capitalism can’t really respond, or rather is not able to create myths that get really rooted in the people for example.

And about modernity, I can’t really tell. If I have to describe it somehow it would be fluidity.

Nature and urban aspects mix at Delfu, animal figures and organic forms are made of techno materials like plexiglass. What is your relationship with nature? 

I have never slept in a tent, I usually choose urban destinations when I travel, and my closest relationship with nature is our home garden. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy nature itself, I just haven’t had the chance. On the other hand, as I use various materials such as ceramics, stone and wood, I have learned to understand the materials’ character, and that has led me to understand nature as well. I respect nature highly and try to minimize the waste that comes from working.

Man Yau, Moony 2017 Wood, spray paint, acrylic 85 cm x 45 cm x 20 cm. Picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.

Playing differs from all human activity because it has no specific intention, it doesn’t have to lead to anything. Do you think of art as a playground with no rules? 

Yes and no. I mean if you look at a painting, for example, for someone it can be the “gate” to her imaginary world, where no sure rules exist. Also, I think art doesn’t have rules in that sense that an art piece is not ”a real need” nor a service product from the artist’ perspective – it doesn’t need to serve anyone in a fundamental way. Yet still, art is very commercial, especially nowadays, and this commerciality brings some rules, or rather assumptions with it. I’m not sure if I agree with those assumptions myself though. Also it’s good to remember that as an artist you do public work in a commercial environment, and you can’t take advantage of someone’s pain/position just to make your work more trendy and profitable.

It seems like the elements at Huuto Gallery are alive but still. How do you approach movement when you’re designing a sculpture?  

I feel that somehow the movement in the Delfu pieces came naturally. The techniques that I use, even if I have very detailed technical drawings and measurements for the work, give these unpredictable and organic shapes. I think it’s crucial that the works are made entirely by hand in order to get this feeling of movement; I don’t think the result would have been as fluid if I had them factory produced. Also, when I started to realise that the block of wood is going to turn into a dolphin shape, I kind of had to pick one “still” from that dream film from my head.

Work in progress. Studio picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.
Man Yau, Delfu, exhibition view, Galleria Huuto Jätkäsaari. Picture by Emma Sarpaniemi.

Is there a piece of art you would like to own? 

Yes, many! I have started to collect some paintings now, but I would love to have some sculptures as well. Pieces such as Brancusi’s ​Plante Exotique​, Amy Brener’s silicon casted, futuristic female uniform, any steel work of John Newman’s, Elina Vainio’s installation Aeolian Processes​, Brad Troemel’s ant frames. The list is long.

What inspires you and keeps you going? 

This is a big cliché, but everyday life is the thing, with all its ups and downs.

Can you tell us about your future projects? 

At the moment I’m working on a new exhibition for Sinne together with Johannes Ekholm. We are making an exhibition that observes our time from a speculative aspect. The exhibition opens in October. I hope to see you there!

Man Yau


Galleria Huuto Jätkäsaari, Jätkä 1

5-20 August 2017

Photography by Emma Sarpaniemi