Last Thursday, the world celebrated Earth Day 2021 and I woke up to a deluge of breathlessly excited Whatsapp messages from fellow Malaysian and ex-Malaysian friends in Singapore. All the messages were about the same thing – Time magazine’s stunning cover art for its special issue on the climate change crisis, Climate is Everything, and the artist behind it, “a Malaysian!”, Red Hong Yi.
By now, many of you would have seen images of the much-talked-about cover, read Time magazine’s behind-the-scenes story or seen the YouTube video about the making of Climate is Everything but, for those of you who haven’t, here’s a quick rundown.
For its 26 April cover on the global impact of climate change, Time magazine commissioned Sabah-born Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi to create an artwork illustrating the dramatic effects of climate change on our interconnected world. (The artist is known for her monumental mixed-media installations made using everyday objects – an early work, made in 2012, was a portrait of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, created using a basketball and red paint). For the Time cover, Red conceptualised a work that would be part installation and part performance art. First designing the massive 2.3m x 3m world map using computer imaging, then laser-cutting holes in precise positions on a board, she and her team spent 8 hours a day over 2 weeks, painstakingly inserting and gluing 50,000 green-tipped matchsticks onto the board…
“We made sure to have all countries on the map no matter how small – that includes Singapore although it was just with one matchstick.”
… and then set the entire thing on fire, burning it down in all of 2 minutes.
Hong’s powerful image of a world aflame needs no exposition – it is at once moving and sobering, delivering a stern warning of the dire impact of climate change and underscoring Time’s theme for the issue. Drawing on lessons learnt in the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong wanted to highlight the urgent need for the countries of the world to come together to tackle and solve the problems arising from climate change.
“The idea came from wanting to highlight a world map, where everyone’s involved, and if one place is affected, the whole place is affected.”
As Time’s 26 April cover story says, “When COVID-19 hit, the climate conversation at first took a back seat as hospital beds filled. But in the midst of the crisis, interest seemed only to grow as the pandemic reminded people of the risk of ignoring science and the world’s interconnectedness.”
As one would imagine, to create an artwork of this scale and magnitude, that involves so many moving parts, an artist requires the support of an entire team and Hong is no exception. The dedicated people who assisted Hong in her creation of this work include fabricators, photographers, videographers and a team solely in charge of ensuring fire safety.
Since moving back to Kuala Lumpur in July 2020 and establishing her studio there, Hong has assembled a permanent team of 7 – 4 full-time and 2 part-time staff in KL and one based in China, handling social media and marketing there. Chatting via Whatsapp, we commiserate over the challenges of running a viable arts enterprise, while recognising that we are fortunate to be in a position to to do what we love.
“I do feel some pressure in having to constantly look out for ways to make sure the studio is sustainable financially. Having a team has helped me take up more projects, but along with it comes the stress of business development and managing a team.”
Being a member of Hong’s team may mean long hours and hard work, but the artist subscribes to Google’s “20-percent rule” – her team takes Mondays off to work on their personal passion projects, recently taking over the gallery space at The Back Room KL to mount a small exhibition of their works, which range from sketches, to sculptures, paintings and installations. Sound like a sweet gig? Here’s a tip: Hong says that her requirements for wannabe members of her team are “the ability to multi-task and to make good coffee”!
Feature image by David Yeow for Time. Courtesy of the artist.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to hear more about the making of this work, why not sign up for Cendana Malaysia’s session on The Making of Time’s ‘Climate is Everything’ Cover, 8 May 2021 at 2:00pm via Zoom. Artist Red Hong Yi and members of her team, Chee Chung Leong, Chong Kern Wei and Annice Lyn, will be speaking. You can register with this link.