Yukai Du explains her enigmatic, World Illustration Award-nominated works

We caught up with the animator and illustrator at this year's Pictoplasma, entering a whole other world in a little corner of Berlin.

Giant hands burst from the landscape, purple as a Hendrix haze and as imposing as a North Korean monument. These extremities may be extreme, yet an enigmatic mystery lingers. Where do these hand-shaped rocks come from? What do they represent? Passers-by dot the scenes, dwarfed and seemingly unfazed.

"I didn't want to show a real landscape, or copy from a photo," Yukai tells me as we look over the paintings in Berlin. "I really wanted to make an original world straight from my imagination."

Six paintings in all, An Anthology vol.2 by London-based Yukai Du has not only been nominated for the World Illustration Awards 2019, but they are also on show as part of this year's Pictoplasma, the character design festival where we caught up with Yukai for this gallery feature.

Yukai's two Anthology volumes to date are on show in the fitting environs of a cemetery lodge, the St. Nicolai und St. Marien Friedhof Verwalterhaus. Old headstones and even older trees surround the little building, in which on the second floor you'll find Yukai's works including very new pieces depicting Chinese water towns and even ceramics.

The gallery rings out with the sounds of ambient tones, fitting in with the otherworldly nature of both the Verwalterhaus and Yukai's masterful landscapes.

We took some pictures in this little twilight zone while chatting with the artist, like this triptych from volume two of her Anthology.


 

The series was created in between commissions for clients; Yukai has done many lately for the likes of Lush and SOGO Hong Kong.

Although the places come from her imagination, she does reveal a trip to Iceland inspired the rocky climes shown in the scenes.

She's also long felt hands are the most expressive parts of the human body besides the face, which is why they appear in both volumes of the series. Call it an Hand-thology, if you will.

"As I usually create animations I wanted to do something different, something that doesn't necessarily have movement or a narrative to tell," she tells me.

Moving away from the Anthology, we look at two wonderful pieces Yukai has made of Chinese water towns. More serene than surreal, the illustrations form part of a series she's yet to finish due to being so damn busy.

"When I was four or five years old I studied Chinese painting; my mum sent me to study it so it felt like a chore," she reveals. "But now I feel like I really appreciate it, how they used colours and showed mountains.

"In Chinese paintings there's always these green-ish blues but they never used purple, so I wanted to incorporate my style into it."

In another room we find Yukai's first Anthology series from 2017, where purple hands and purple-coloured pupils in big eyes share space with coral pink skies, an experiment for Yukai in illustrating light.

The pieces appear in prints which you find hanging on the walls, and also animated for a compilation of GIFs in a style which Yukai calls 'animated impressionism.' 

The animations with their dapples of light play from an old-looking TV in the corner, the volume turned to max.

Ambient chimes ring out, and I feel like I've stepped into a different reality. The library music Yukai chose to soundtrack the montage is a fitting choice, reminding me of the Japanese new age music that's suddenly got popular in the West.

"I don't mind if I'm known more as an animator or an illustrator; I just see what work would fit my style," she says as we survey the work.

"I'm doing a lot of GIFs right now instead of proper animations. Everyone seems to be looking for short loops these days. I'd love to do long form, but making small pieces like these fits better into my schedule."

Before letting her get on with her Pictoplasma schedule, I ask Yukai who her influences are.

"Probably a mix of so many different artists, like Van Gogh. Colour-wise, definitely Nobrow. I've been a fan of their work since I was a student in London."

"It kind of changed me as when I was in China I didn't use many colours, I always preferred black and white. But their work changed how I view colours."

You can catch Yukai speaking next month at indie comic fest ELCAF 2019, as organised by Nobrow; the artist also hopes to put on a proper solo exhibition in London, like the one for Pictoplasma but on a bigger scale.

Nothing is yet set in stone, but we're sure it will be soon. Although seeing her art in the compact, out-of-this-world setting of a cemetery lodge is probably the best way to appreciate her Anthologies with all their immersive sounds and beguiling allure.

After all, sometimes other worlds are best borne from smaller ones, rooms within rooms, entire worlds hidden inside the place you least expect.

More of Yukai's worlds await you below.

Read next: Why Pictoplasma 2019 filled out an old mortuary with ghostly character art

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