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For TIME cover, Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi shows a world on fire

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 26 April 2021 11:01 GMT

Malaysian artist Hong Yi 'Red' and her team create Time magazine's 'Climate is Everything' cover at a warehouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 26, 2021. Credit: David Yeow

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Red used 50,000 green-tipped matches to create the 'Climate is Everything' cover for TIME's Apr. 26 issue, which shows how the global climate crisis impacts every corner of society

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When TIME magazine asked Malaysian contemporary artist Red Hong Yi to create a climate change-themed cover, she soon realised that she would need a lot of matchsticks. 50,000 to be exact.

Red and her team of six spent two weeks assembling the earth's continents out of matchsticks on a 7.5 x 10-foot (2.3 x 3 meter) world map, and then just two minutes burning it down.

"We decided on matchsticks because a matchstick looks like a tree - especially a green-tipped one - and it could be a metaphor for the world and forests of the world," Red told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"(I wanted to show) how it could be burned down, just like that," she said.

The 'Climate is Everything' cover for TIME's Apr. 26 issue, which shows how the climate crisis reaches into every corner of society, is not the first time the 35-year-old has used everyday objects to create art.

Her portrait of Yao Ming, the first Chinese player to carve out a successful career in the NBA, was made using a basketball dipped in red paint.

Known as "the artist who paints without a paintbrush", Kuala Lumpur-based Red has also used the bottom of a coffee cup as a stamp, tea leaves and even socks and pins to create a portrait of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

Red studied architecture at the University of Melbourne but moved to Shanghai and switched to being an artist in 2011 because "buildings take too long to build".

"In China a lot of things are sold in bulk - it is the manufacturing capital of the world - so I suddenly had access to all these materials," said Red.

Red spent her weekends getting to grips with materials like coffee cups and socks and creating contemporary art inspired by her Chinese heritage and addressing themes like racism and women's rights.

Malaysian artist Hong Yi 'Red' and her team create Time magazine's 'Climate is Everything' cover at a warehouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 26, 2021. Credit: Annice Lyn


Her work also includes portraits of movie star Jackie Chan using chopsticks, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei using sunflower seeds, and singer Adele using melted candles.

"I do touch on current affairs quite a bit because I want to depict what we are thinking about, as humans, living here in the 21st century right now," she said.

Red has had her art exhibited in Hong Kong, San Francisco, Alaska and the Davos summit, and was named as one of Asia's most influential voices in 2020 by society magazine Tatler.

Her first solo exhibition titled "Future Relics", featured a series of 10 artworks that look like Chinese vases but on closer inspection are made from eggshells.

Imagery for the art depicted different themes for women - including politics, marriage, education and the #MeToo movement.

It was due to be exhibited in Los Angeles last year but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I created this series because there is a lot of conversation about women right now," said Red.

"The idea is that in one or two hundred years time - when people look back these pieces - they will go 'oh, this is what people were talking about at the time - about women', so that was the motivation," she added.

Her appreciation for TIME magazine's iconic covers, which often highlight significant events or individuals in the current moment, made her latest artwork a "dream project" but it was not the first time she had used matchsticks in her creations.

"Even before the TIME piece, I was dabbling with fire and charcoal and how to burn different objects," said Red, who was born in the Sabah region on Borneo island.

Three years ago, she made climate-themed art using matchsticks, in collaboration with a street artist on endangered orangutans and forest fires.

Red said her next project would likely be on race and unity especially given the anti-Asian hate crimes seen in the United States in recent weeks.

"I do want to talk about things like that - the history of how it came about and how we can go forward," she said.

"Humans against a canvass and probably spray paint colour over, and then when the person walks off, the remain is a white silhouette ... playing around with human paintbrushes."

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(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Tom Finn.  Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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