Nothing Ordinary

Malaysian artist ‘Red’ Hong Yi turns mundane into magnificent with her unconventional work

Published: 20 April 2017, Text by: Eris Choo

Can an artist paint without a paintbrush? Hong Yi, or Red as she is better known, proves that anything can be a canvas.

The Malaysian artist breaks stereotypes with her art pieces, created from ordinary everyday objects. There’s a portrait of British singer Adele made from 1,500 melted candles, a portrait of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi put together with 2,000 dyed carnations, and an installation of Hong Kong action movie star Jackie Chan made from chopsticks.

Despite her popularity on social media, where she has thousands of fans from all over the world, the humble lass from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state says that growing up, art was just a hobby and not a prospective ‘job’.

A portrait of actor Jackie Chan made using chopsticks, Photo © Hong Yi
A portrait of actor Jackie Chan made using chopsticks, Photo © Hong Yi

“I’ve always loved art, but I never took it seriously as it didn’t seem as professional or as ‘secured’ as other careers,” Red says. “I ended up in architecture, but deep down inside, I always knew I was happiest when I was making art.”  

After graduating with a Masters in Architecture from the University of Melbourne, she moved to Shanghai for a career in architecture. At the age of 25, she realised that she did not have an art portfolio to show. “I was too caught up in wanting my artworks and ideas to be perfect; too afraid of making mistakes and showing people my work,” she recalls.

Pushing herself to commit to making art, she spent a weekend creating a piece featuring Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, using a basketball dipped in red paint. This proved to be the pivotal moment that launched her career as an artist. When Red uploaded a video of her making the piece, it exploded on the Internet, garnering half a million views after it was featured on news site Gizmodo. Soon, big name news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Good Morning America and The Huffington Post knocked on her door for permission to feature her work.

'Red' Hong Yi, Photo © Hong Yi
'Red' Hong Yi, Photo © Hong Yi

She confesses that she had not expected her pieces to become so popular. “I knew I had to ride on the momentum that the media was creating around me right at the start of my art career, and that I had to be consistent with producing new work,” she says.

While it was exciting to be in the spotlight, the feeling was fleeting. “What I really felt was fear and pressure, like I had to produce work to meet people’s expectations. It took me some time to realise that I had to make art for my own happiness,” she says.

In the early days, time was a challenge as she could only make art on weekends or after work hours. Now that she’s doing it full time, Red is glad that the line between work and art as a hobby is blurred, although, with that comes other challenges.

“As an artist, I have to be vulnerable enough to create work that challenges the status quo, and sometimes that can be very uncomfortable. I’m hoping to learn to push my art further, and also be open to criticism,” she elaborates.

People in popular culture feature strongly in her art, Photo © Hong Yi
People in popular culture feature strongly in her art, Photo © Hong Yi

Red’s choice of media and the way she puts her pieces together certainly pushes the boundaries of what is considered ordinary. She has used socks and pins, sunflower seeds, flowers, straws and tea bags, among other things.

“I try to challenge myself to see objects around me differently. A pair of chopsticks, for example, can appear long or short when viewed from different sides. Items in bulk can be arranged in piles, bundles or rows. There are many different ways to present an object,” she says, adding that this creative process also inspired her to look at life from different perspectives. “I’m almost always surprised by the results of my own experiments!”

The artist hard at work, Photo © Hong Yi
The artist hard at work, Photo © Hong Yi

The subjects she pick are people often talked about in popular culture, or those who have inspired her. One of her personal favourites is ‘Secret’ – a portrait of Taiwanese singer Jay Chou created using coffee cup stains.  Inspired by the song A Secret that Cannot Be Told, the sepia-tone evokes nostalgia, and the many stamped rings blending into one another represent broken leaves and memories.

“Jay’s songs were a huge part of my teenage years, and I wanted to create a piece that reminded me of those days. I really tried to feel the emotions of the song and transferred them onto the painting,” she says.

On artists she looks up to, Red cites Chuck Close as a huge inspiration. The American painter and photographer is known for his monumental, gridded paintings that look abstract up close but hyper-realistic from afar.

One particular quote by Close struck a chord with her. “He once said that inspiration is for amateurs; the rest just show up and get to work. If you wait around for clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work,” she quips. “That has brought me through times when I have doubted and questioned myself.”

Social media has played an important role in promoting her art, which Red is grateful for. “You’re your own ‘company’ now, and art collectors, buyers and clients get to come to you directly instead of going through a gallery. Everyone’s glued to their phones these days so if your work isn’t online, you’re missing out on a lot of eyeballs!”

Red says the Malaysian art scene is still in its infancy but is slowly but surely growing. “When I visited Penang recently, it was truly enjoyable walking around the city hunting for street murals! Local artists should tap into social media to promote their work, and think about how to curate their work online and develop their own distinct style,” she advises.

The 'Teh Tarik Man' made from 20,000 dyed tea bags reflects her Malaysian heritage, Photo © Hong Yi
The 'Teh Tarik Man' made from 20,000 dyed tea bags reflects her Malaysian heritage, Photo © Hong Yi

Red is a firm believer of personal projects – after all, she got discovered because of them - and thinks that artists should do things that they’re passionate about. “Chances are, artists will get discovered not by projects they’ve created for clients, but by their personal projects,” she says.

For her, the best part of her job is being able to share her art with people from all around the globe and inspire others to see things differently. “I occasionally receive emails from fans who have no background in art, or who say they were never interested in art before. Sometimes these are from children, written with the help of their parents. That truly encourages me.”

Red shares that right from the start, she wanted to create art that could be understood and appreciated, rather than layered in cryptic messages, and this is probably why people like her work.

“I think it is the fascination of seeing something ordinary used in a surprisingly different way that resonates with people,” she enthuses, adding that she hopes to inspire others to create their own art not bound to rules.

Art aside, the talented young woman is also passionate about humanitarian issues. She previously travelled to Cambodia to meet her sponsored child and raise awareness on conditions there, in partnership with World Vision. Her latest personal project will focus on the plight of refugees. “I’ve been chatting with various people involved in helping refugees. I’ll also be visiting a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon soon,” she says.

Her advice for aspiring artists? “Work hard, be consistent, and don’t be afraid of showing your work.” 

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