On-Yau has an eye for beauty. She sees it in everything, in the most common objects, in what is usually discarded. She takes pleasure from the delicate transparency of a fishbone, the trace of tea where it has seeped through its paper bag, the small feathers left behind by a bird taking flight. Her real talent, though, doesn’t lie in what she sees but how she transforms it to make it apparent to the rest of us, through her Art, her jewelry, her vision. Her purpose is to share her discoveries, to involve other people, create a connection between bodies and minds. With Rooftops, she has created a safe haven, bathed in natural light, where artists can focus on the process of creating, producing and sharing their work. On-Yau runs this project with the same clarity, focus and attention to detail she uses when transforming the remains of our everyday life into exquisitely evocative creations.
ALOUD: Can you describe the various steps you have taken. How you became interested in making art, how architecture was your career of choice and how you ended up in Berlin managing artists studios.
ON-YAU LUI: I guess I should begin with my childhood and my parents’ ongoing encouragement to extend my zones of interest and (particularly via my father’s photography) make observations from multiple perspectives. It helped me view the world around me in different ways. Visual arts has always played an important role, working in different mediums, using my hands to make things. In high school, I was introduced to jewelry making and since the age of 15, architecture was always there.
ALOUD: Why is that?
ON-YAU LUI: I couldn’t really see any other university degree that interested me. I knew I wasnʼt an illustrator, but there is something a bit more constructive about straight lines. (laughs)
ALOUD: You could have easily gone towards fine arts.
ON-YAU LUI: I could have gone straight to fine arts and studied art theory but at the time, I saw the potential of architecture as being a career. I had this idea it could take me places around the world. I was interested in creativity, science and social science, and architecture encompassed all of these. I have always been thankful for having the jobs I had, but from experience I found that I was dealing with projects which I often wished I had more passion for and clients who were often only of the very privileged kind I felt I needed to connect with a wider cross section of people. On another note, I’d been trying to keep a balance between architecture, the jewellery bench, health and life in general – and really discontent that it was difficult to maintain it all simultaneously. That’s when I made a choice to step aside. The first step towards a break from architecture was to travel solo for a year. Coming to Europe was a big step, even just to have a taste. Along the way, I stopped over in Japan for nine months. I loved living there but I had initially left Sydney seeking more space and time and it just doesn’t make sense to seek those things in Tokyo (laughs). Now that I have experienced both Tokyo and Berlin, it’s not too difficult for me to say that Berlin is my choice right now.
ALOUD: You arrived in Berlin almost 3 years ago, what was it like when you got here?
ON-YAU LUI: It’s said that Berlin isn’t typical of its country, that it’s rather like an island within Germany. The fact that there is a lot of cultural exchange here was a real drawcard. There’s sense of a temporary nature here that keeps you rolling.
ALOUD: Did you come to Berlin with the idea of setting up artists studios?
ON-YAU LUI: No, I didnʼt. I came to Berlin hoping to find a place for myself to work and live.
ALOUD: What type of work?
ON-YAU LUI: The early plan was to focus on my jewellery work. I packed and carried many tools with me, a lot of heavy stuff (laughs). Since I had them already, I might as well bring them over. I never imagined that I would be doing what I am doing now.
ALOUD: How did you set up Rooftops?
ON-YAU LUI: Well, I looked at a couple of places, but they didn’t interest me. A friend of mine knew somebody who didn’t need his studio anymore and co-incidentally, two other traveling friends were in Berlin at the time and were seeking studio space too. We came to visit this place together and upon arrival, discovered it was much larger than a studio for one, it could have easily catered for three and more. So, here we were looking at this great place but we were thinking, how are we going to do this? This was definitely a turning point. After a lot of careful consideration I finally jumped into the deep end and thought. ‘It’ll work out somehow.’
ALOUD: Had you started establishing a good network of artists and people in Berlin?
ON-YAU LUI: I had only been in Berlin for a month and a half (laughs).
ALOUD: Did you think that you would start filling up the space and keep some for yourself so you could still be a jeweler in Berlin?
ON-YAU LUI: There was only one actual bedroom and a lot of open space. The space is interesting in that you can divide it into sections and form individual studios. Everything evolved after the first artist came. We had an initial period of five months to take this on, so we thought we would try. The worst scenario would be to pack up after five months.
ALOUD: When did you think for the first time that it could work?
ON-YAU LUI: It was when I realised that there are many people coming and going, looking for a space to work, just as I had. It’s really a wonder when I see so many talented people who have amazing work, it keeps me excited as well.
ALOUD: How many artists are sharing the space at the moment?
ON-YAU LUI: There are nine of us at the moment. Lengths of stay can vary. It’s a rather flexible program. Generally, there’ll be somebody new at least every three months.
ALOUD: Are the artists mostly emerging, still at the beginning of their career?
ON-YAU LUI: There is certainly a range from emerging artists to a few that are quite well established already and of course, it’s an honor that they are here.
ALOUD: I imagine that you all get very close working in the same space.
ON-YAU LUI: It’s certainly not like a holiday or a big brother house. It’s primarily a work space – it just happens to be creative. It’s not like a library but there is mutual respect for an atmosphere that allows for focus. When we hold events the atmosphere changes completely.
ALOUD: What is the selection process like for the artists?
ON-YAU LUI: I usually first make contact with people by email, then meet them in person or conduct an interview via Skype. I never give people a subjective opinion about their art but will gather an instinct for whether the artist and their work would suitably compliment or contrast what else is going on at the studios.
ALOUD: Is there always a good balance of people coming and leaving?
ON-YAU LUI: There are always people showing interest but I don’t confirm people too far in advance. It’s not so loose that their is no planning or organisation but there is this nature of flexibility which keeps it quite dynamic.
ALOUD: How do you combine running this space with your own work?
ON-YAU LUI: It’s hard, but I manage. There is a lot of invisible work related to running the studios. It has really been a learning curve, to be more efficient and still remain personally involved. As time goes, I realise that I cannot always say “yes” but I don’t like to say “no”. It’s important to point out to people that there are options. Making adjustments to see how things might eventuate means to simply have an open mind.
ALOUD: Do you find that the position your are in now, with administrative work and on the other hand, staying creative, you can use what you learnt practicing as an architect?
ON-YAU LUI: I can see clearly that my training as an architect, studying and working, has overlapped a lot with my current work, using the side of the brain which is geared towards organisation of space and running a program smoothly both in principal and reality. As a designer of space, it’s about moving blocks of space around, but it can also be time. The space in the studio is constantly evolving and it is also important to give people an opportunity for an outcome, like exhibitions. I can see immediately that people gear up towards the show and it also puts me into work mode. I find that I need to work under pressure.
ALOUD: Do you find that your creative process is improved by the proximity of other artists?
ON-YAU LUI: It may not be obvious, but perhaps after all, yes. I’m constantly intrigued by painters because even though I love art and making art, I have never picked up a paintbrush. It’s another world. I watch it in front of me, all right – I see progression and that’s totally inspiring. I wouldn’t say that the style of work or ways of working has rubbed off onto me, but it does spur my own creative energy that’s for sure. In terms of my art, I have quite a clear aim as to what I want to create. Amongst things, I have an ongoing collaboration with a fellow Australian artist who came here last year.
ALOUD: Can you describe your collaborative project?
ON-YAU LUI: It’s called Sound.Transmission.Light. I have to, first and foremost, introduce Richard Byers. We have been friends for many years but it was having the space and time outside of Sydney that brought us together. I had begun a project back in Sydney using tea-bags. It’s evolved since then, but I still use the paper. I put them together in large screens. I was in the middle of one of the panels which I was working on towards an exhibition and Richard was also working on a project of his own. He works with visuals and sound and one day, we wondered what it would look like to put these visuals onto the paper panels. All of these elements combined was really magical. It can involve still imagery or video and it’s linked to a computer program that makes these images respond to sound. We also work with musicians playing live. We have been very pleased to present these shows in various cities, like Berlin, Sydney, Brisbane and Tokyo. It’s an encompassing project because I’m not that interested in art work only for art works’ sake. I look for the involvement of other people.
ALOUD: I have seen some of your jewelry, and I have worked with you in an architecture office. What strikes me is that you work in completely different scales and I feel like your Sound.Transmission.Light project is in a way bridging the gap between the scale of the tea-bag and filling up an entire space.
ON-YAU LUI: Yeah (smiles), it makes me so happy that you can see that. I agree and I really do enjoy working across the scales from a building, spaces, interiors and eventually coming down to the detail. I need to have opposites to feel a sense of balance within myself. A concept has to be strong but without finishing it down to the details, I would not be happy with it. I also look for the connection with another person, the physicality. When I think about the studios, it’s more than just a space for people to do their thing. Also with teaching, I have the opportunity to spend time with people from totally different walks of life.
ALOUD: You found that in architecture, the problem was that you were often dealing with one group of people. When you are surrounded by artists, although it is a very interesting group of people, it’s still very particular.
ON-YAU LUI: That’s why it’s important for me now that I can change hats between the art world and teaching. It keeps me occupied, I’m never bored. Although it’s exciting, it’s hardly a regular life – or, at least very different from before.
ALOUD: So teaching is a good opportunity to make connections with other people.
ON-YAU LUI: Yes. Many of the students I teach are mature aged people looking to (re-)enter the work force, taking part in courses which are part of a social welfare program. Some other students are much younger and have only just started university. In most cases, these individuals haven’t yet had the chance to travel much nor had the opportunities that sometimes I take for granted. This makes me appreciate my own life all the more. They don’t know much about me, they think that I teach English all the time. The sense of anonymity is sort of interesting.
ALOUD: Do you agree with this quote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”?
ON-YAU LUI: Partly. Your relationship to your work changes a lot when you have a sense of passion and dedication. When that happens, work is not necessarily a chore but you do have to work towards what you want.
ALOUD: Has it been very important working for yourself?
ON-YAU LUI: To have the freedom to make decisions for yourself really does make a huge difference. No matter how difficult your day is, at least you’re still doing it for yourself. I don’t say it in a self-indulgent manner, it’s more that you feel that it is worthwhile knowing that you’re the one who will appreciate it.
ALOUD: At the moment, are you able to live your life only doing things you want to be doing?
ON-YAU LUI: One day, in the near future, I would prefer not have to do the teaching but for the time being, I can also see the benefits of it, not only from an economical point of view, it also keeps the perspective wide. There is a direction I’d like to head towards and that’s towards social responsibility.
ALOUD: What do you mean by that?
ON-YAU LUI: I hope that with the studios and the project with Richard, we are not limiting the audience to being this so-called creative corner of the world. There is a lot that can be done through art with less privileged (socially or physically) groups of people. I’m keeping that door wide open to see when an opportunity could arise. I think it’s important for everyone just to remember to look left and right. It’s easy just to be on a treadmill.
ALOUD: Is there a line between your life and your work?
ON-YAU LUI: A fine line, that door (laughs, pointing at the threshold between her own studio and the others’.) Even if I have a work day and I have a few hours at the school, I come back and it’s not like I’m going home, there is always something waiting.
ALOUD: What do you do when you are not working?
ON-YAU LUI: The wonderful thing about this city is that it really is a pedestrian city and there is so much going on, an endless stream of public events. The fact is, there is never enough time in one day and I need to also focus on my own work, not just literal work but creating my own work.
ALOUD: Have you learnt German?
ON-YAU LUI: I speak some German now and I love the fact that I can atleast understand some conversations. I remember telling myself days before I arrived “mark this moment, you know nothing, you don’t know a word” (laughs).
ALOUD: Have you been able to make more connections in Berlin and with German people as a result of speaking the language?
ON-YAU LUI: I think people who speak multiple languages have the advantage of having a key to another place and it is really vital. The connection with a culture different to your own would never be the same. In retrospect, if I was at school again, I would have chosen to study only languages.
ALOUD: Do you plan to call Berlin home for a long time?
ON-YAU LUI: We’ll see how it goes. My standard answer is “as long as I am still happy”. Of course, there are moments of uncertainty but there is that general sense of happiness.
ALOUD: Do you miss Sydney?
ON-YAU LUI: I love Sydney. When I go back there, it’s all very familiar. It’s like reading a book for a second or third time, a good book.
ALOUD: Do you think that you could do what you are doing here in Sydney?
ON-YAU LUI: I don’t think so.
ALOUD: Why not? Is it too isolated?
ON-YAU LUI: The transitory nature isn’t there. It is said, right now, that it is an exciting time to be here in Berlin. There are many major capital cities around the world that have had their time for the arts and at present, it’s very vibrant here.
ALOUD: Do you think that when you left Sydney, a part of you was closing the door on architecture?
ON-YAU LUI: That’s another reason I chose to be in another language speaking country.
ALOUD: So you wouldn’t be an architect?
ON-YAU LUI: I know so well the importance of communication. So much of the occupation of being an architect is visual and verbal communication. Let’s say the door is not closed, there is a wedge under the door. In any case, the skills I have gained from architecture are critical to what I am doing here.
ALOUD: How do you promote the studios and within that, your own work?
ON-YAU LUI: We have a website, word-of-mouth, exhibitions and recommendations. We certainly have a lovely and healthy group of people who have been connected through various people who have spent time here. Sometimes spontaneity is also a key. Spontaneity and boldly suggesting things when it could be a crazy idea and making it happen. When it is achievable, then you just make it happen. Sometimes, you add stress that you don’t really need but then again, if it’s something you are passionate about, then that extra work is worth it.
ALOUD: How do you imagine the studios will evolve? Are you thinking about making things bigger?
ON-YAU LUI: That would be a dream. If the project became larger, I would need someone as keen as myself and with a similar outlook to continue the project. I think there is a lot of potential to expand but at present, that would be too much to handle alone.
ALOUD: Are there skills or experiences you would like to add to your repertoire?
ON-YAU LUI: First of all, language. Of course, I would like to improve technical skills for my own silver crafting and metal working. In terms of administration, there is still a lot to perfect.
ALOUD: What do you think about the question of taking risks?
ON-YAU LUI: I think I take risks almost everyday, but I am also very careful and thoughtful. I definitely consider at all the possibilities. The only certainty being that you want to come out of it with a smile on your face. If you want something or know it’s a necessary step, do it but any risk should not rely too much on other people’s actions. If you have enough control over the variables, then it’s OK.
ALOUD: So, it’s measured risk?
ON-YAU LUI: There is always a plan B, and there is always a bright side to plan B.
When the time came to recommend another woman who should be on this blog, On-Yau suggested one of the resident artists at Rooftops:Erin Currier, a painter from the US, is currently one of the artists at Rooftops. She was recommended for her ability to use her art as a way to engage with socio-political issues around the world, and to give a voice to people whose work and lives have not always received the full recognition they deserve.
To learn more about Rooftops, visit their website at www.rooftopstudios.de. You will find links to the many artists’ personal websites, including On-Yau’s which you can also access directly at www.onmono.com. You will also find up to date information on upcoming Rooftops group exhibitions and On-Yau’s collaborative project with Richard Byers, Sound.Transmission.Light. Expect some shows next year in Japan, Germany and Australia.