The Artist who Paints without a Paintbrush: Red Hong Yi on Using Her Platform to Raise Awareness and Inspire Change
Red Hong Yi is a Chinese-Malaysian contemporary artist and architect who reinterprets everyday materials and objects to create art and mixed media installations. She attended Trinity College (University of Melbourne) and graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Planning and Design and a Master of Architecture from the University of Melbourne before moving to Shanghai to work for the Australian architecture firm HASSELL. Her works have been shown at H Queens in Hong Kong, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and Alaska’s Anchorage Museum. JP Morgan Chase Bank and actor Jackie Chan are among her collectors. She has been sought after by clients all over the world, and she has been invited to speak at international conferences. She was named of the top 12 ‘Brilliant Malaysians’ and ‘Brilliant Artist Award’ by Esquire Magazine, awarded Perspective’s 40 Under 40 award as a creative who will shape the design world in the years to come, and one of the 19 “Future Chasers” by Australia Unlimited as future decision-makers of courage, imagination and will. Trinity College honoured her with the inaugural Foundation Studies Alumna of the Year Award in May 2019 for her contributions to the visual arts. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, TIME, and the New York Times. She was named one of the “11 art world entrepreneurs you should know” by Sotheby’s Institute. Tatler Magazine named her one of Asia’s most powerful voices for 2020. TIME magazine’s April 2021 issue, titled “Climate is Everything”, was created by Red by rendering a world map made of 50,000 green-tipped matchsticks.
This interview first appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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Can you tell us more about your beginning? Did you always want to be an artist? Who influenced you as an artist and as a person?
I think there has to be my mom and dad. I guess it’s because when I was a kid, they taught me how to draw. They taught me how to sketch and as I got better at that, they encouraged me a lot. And my mom in particular was the one who exposed me to Picasso, Monet, and Van Gogh. My grandmother bought printed copies of all these artwork, in the local market. So, as a kid in Malaysia, I admired these pieces. But it wasn’t until my 20s that I got to see them in person. So that was the start of my interest in art. Yeah, I think I always wanted to be an artist, as a kid. But as I got older, I thought, when I was about 15, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to happen. Because it just seems not possible. And my impression of being an artist, at that time was of people who draw portraits on the road site. So that was not what I wanted to do. And I didn’t know anyone who was doing it full time, except my teachers who are teaching art. So, I didn’t have a person to whom I could talk about it. So I thought, Okay, I’m gonna do architecture or study, I don’t know, medicine or something like that. It wasn’t really enough in the back of my mind when I went to university.
She creates work that considers perceptual habits and preconceptions on the chosen objects and subjects by combining traditional craftsmanship and digital technology, expressing various themes that include focus also on women.
When did you start to think it could be a career?
I started when I was actually in China, in Shanghai. So after I studied architecture, I moved to Shanghai. I got to meet my relatives there. I met them before when I was a kid, when they visited my family in Malaysia. But when I went to China, I actually got to live with them and meet them. So I met my grand uncle, who used to be an artist, and he used to draw propaganda posters during the Mao revolution. He was the first, I think, a full-time artist that I met. Of course, he was already retired when I met him. So I got to talk about it. He lived through a very different time. I got to bond with him. I was very inspired. And during my free time, during the weekends, I started to make art because I was so inspired by my surroundings. I just wanted to not forget how I was feeling but I didn’t go into it wanting to make it into a career. I just did it for fun. And then I put it online and share it with my friends. And then eventually I started to have a bit of a following. From there, I started to have commission requests. That was the moment I realised: “Hey, maybe I can, you know, take some projects on the side.” So it started happening from there, really really gradually and slowly.
Where do your spirits and ability to take something common and ordinary and give it another light come from? Because you make art without brushes, without limits with flower petals, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and tea bags …
I think it came from two things. My background in architecture gave me a curiosity and an interest in exploring materials and building things with different textures and objects. The other thing is when I moved to China, things were so affordable, you could just buy them so easily. You can source it anywhere and it’s so cheap. I was earning money for the first time in my life, having an actual salary. And then with that salary, I could buy materials that were affordable to me. So, I just found it really fun to buy all sorts of things and just try them.
Can you tell us more about these art projects made with coffee and capsules, soccer balls, tea bags, etc?
Yeah, so those were my very first personal project, and I gave them to myself because I thought: “Oh, I am new to China. If I live here, after a year, everything is gonna look normal to me.” But in the beginning, it’s not so normal, like everything that I see is crazy. So my project was to do portraits of famous Chinese people who appeared in the media, from different industries, and I wanted to use different materials. So Yao Ming, with a basketball, Jay Chou with coffee cups, and it all had to relate to the person that I was drawing, in some ways. So all of them have a connection. I started to read their Wikipedia profiles for an object that connected with them. That was how I did it.
How long did it take each project considering also the planning aspect?
Not long, because I was working full time. So I would do it on the weekends. Like the Yao Ming one, it was literally just three hours. But of course, I failed a couple of times, like I had no plan at the start, I would put the paper on the ground, and then the wind would blow and the paper would blow off that kind of thing. And then I couldn’t even film it. The second one was Jay Chou. It was like the coffee cups day and I had a very bad camera. So although I finished the piece, when I looked at the camera, it was just badly taken. So one part of it was making art. The other one was documenting it. I tried to balance both. But I did it during the weekends when I was not working. So it took maybe two weekends sometimes.
What about your Time cover on climate change, where you lit your artwork made of 50,000 matchsticks on fire? How long did it take to complete the project?
That was an incredible opportunity. After building up a bit of a portfolio. I contacted the creative director and showed him my portfolio, and he responded, but I didn’t know he was following my work for like, a couple of years. And about two, or three years later, he contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing something for the cover. And that was a huge honour to do that for such a big magazine. So I’m grateful they allowed me to do that. For this project, they gave me a deadline of one month, which was actually for Time is very long, the turnaround time is one week. But for me, it was really short. And it happened when the lockdown was happening, and it was lifted and all that. So we had to source the concept. We had to source the materials. I had a really big team helping me out, and I had to coordinate the videographers and photographers.
Do you have a story from the backstage of this project?
Yeah! Many, quite a bit, I think. I told everyone, we only have one attempt to do this. So we did a small-scale experiment. But on that day, I finished the artwork already and we were about it, burning it the next day. The photographers and videographers were very stressed out because they had to stand by and shoot it.
From your perspective, how much has the relationship between nature and artists changed?
I think when I started, the whole topic of climate change and the environment wasn’t as strong as today. So when I started out doing it, I just made art because I liked it. But over the years, I’m really thankful for a lot of conversations around climate and environments. It’s made everyone a lot more aware of what they use and how the messages that they send out. So today in my studio, when we go for lunch, for example, we try to reduce plastic usage, and even when we package our artwork, we try to reduce it as well. And even in the materials that we choose. If I get back in my mind, when I start it wasn’t as strong. So I think that the conversation is important. The messages that we send to each other, make an impact over the years. Throughout time, it just became something that everyone is aware of. Ten years ago, it wasn’t really much of a topic. So I think it’s a good thing to have it in the back of our minds.
You had worked on ‘I Am Not A Virus’ an art project that features portraits of hate crime assault victims. Can you share the feelings that moved you to create this project? What was your reaction when you heard about the rise in anti-Asian hate crime during Covid 19 and lockdown? What do you hope people will understand?
I think the issue of race is everywhere. Sometimes I think, I even ask myself, Am I stereotyping a certain race? Am I being insensitive? Like, I have to watch myself as well, because I do not want to live in that kind of society. I want everyone to have equal standing to accept everyone because, in the end, we are all humans, that should be loved and respected, and accepted. So I think when the whole COVID-19 thing broke out, and there was a lot of racism happening, in certain countries, I was about to travel back to the US because I was spending some time there. A lot of my friends said “No, no, don’t come over, it’s really bad. You might get hit on the streets and all that kind of thing.” So I felt like “Wow!” It can be racism, it can be fear, I just felt like I wanted to voice out, and then talk about that. Let’s separate the virus and races: it is a separate thing. So, I came up with that artwork. And I put some newspaper clippings in it as well. That’s the behind-the-scenes of that artwork. I hope that we will really accept each other for just being humans. That’s it. Not judge each other by our skin colour. I think the more we understand each other, the more we could be friends. I think bias comes from a lot of misunderstanding and fear. And sometimes as children, we’re taught a certain thing and we really think it that way. But as you grow older, and when you meet more people and you really become their friends, you get in the end that we all want the same things. And it’s beautiful to get to know each other’s cultures. I think the media and art play a big part in shaping people’s perceptions.
How did the idea for your project “MemeBank” come to life? Can you tell us more about the concept and how did you develop it?
It’s probably one of my favourite projects since it’s funny. I think I want to include more humour in the art. Because sometimes my art is serious, and everyone gets really serious. But meme bank was just like a joke. So it was about, in lockdown, I started to question “Why is my coffee getting more and more expensive?” “Why is my food getting more and more expensive?” “What’s happening to my money?” that kind of thing. And then I started dating a guy, now my husband, who is in the banking industry. I asked him “Can you explain to me what the banks do?” And he explained the banking system and money and printing money, that our currency is going down, because the government’s printing a lot of money. And I thought “Oh, really, they’re printing a lot of money!” I took it literally, I said “What if I printed my own money?” “And if I overprinted it too, would the value go down?” And all that kind of thing. So I told my team “Hey, we’re gonna call ourselves a bank for the next six months to print out money.” Because our projects were stopped for a while during the lockdown. I was like, let’s not care about those projects. We print out money from now on. So it’s really a question of critique of money and value and what’s out there and why banks are keeping our money and printing money and all that kind of thing. I think there’s a funny side. I think there’s a deeper meaning behind it as well. It’s up to you. It’s up to people, if they want to take it seriously or not.
What is the biggest challenge of being an artist during the social media era? What are the limits and the benefits?
I think the best thing that I stumbled upon recently is a podcast called “Beyond the studio”, I highly recommend it for any artist who wants to know, behind the scenes, how it works, because it’s so challenging, you have to balance not just making your art, but also your financing and promoting it. Make sure that your expenses are not too crazy. And you constantly can still create and be creative. So I think the hard part, the most challenging part, is to be creative. But at the same time, you also need the wisdom and financial expertise to balance it out so that you can still continue financially to do this thing that you love doing as an artist. Essentially, you’re selling something that you’re making from nothing, right? Whereas if you provide a service such as being a surgeon and surgically cutting up someone who’s sick, you’re providing something that is a solution to a problem. When you’re creating art or something that is in your mind that you are interested in and trying to sell it to somebody, this can be challenging sometimes, but I love doing it. Finding the market to keep it going can be a challenge.
A lot of your artworks are made with sustainable materials, what is your perspective on waste and up-cycling? Can you tell us more about your collaboration with brands that are aware of these themes?
I am more than happy to share, I do collaborate with brands because I find it easy to work with them. But of course, I’m very selective about which brands I choose to work with. It has to be brands that firstly, I like. Secondly, also, I want to work with brands that are doing good as well. So if it’s a brand that is not respectful of the environment, I wouldn’t do that. I do work with brands because it keeps my company or my studio financially stable right now. I do try to balance out branded projects and personal projects because I think they’re important. But I think today, artists have the option to work with brands. I know, some artists or some galleries think it’s not pure, but I think it helps me continue to be able to make my own art as well.
If we wish for gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow, what do you think is the hardest part of making this topic alive?
That’s a huge topic! I think it’s amazing to see more and more women, in the arts, that I can look up to. As a kid, even when it comes to film directors and artists and all that it’s usually male models, but now more females are coming up. So I’m glad that my future generations are going to see women coming up. And I also think that for me, as a woman, I want to be an example to other women like young girls today. So I have to also tell myself that “Hey, if there’s an opportunity here, I will step in as a female or as an Asian” for example, to speak up for a certain community. So I think my reminder to myself is “It’s a gap that I can fill if it’s a leadership position that I can take.” I shouldn’t shy away from it. Because sometimes I feel quite shy or I don’t want to take up the leadership role because it is too much. But as women, we should try to rise as well. So I hope that’s encouraging.
Featured image: Photo © Isaac Collard
Photos courtesy of Red Hongyi