Running red hot

By Michelle Fincke

In recognition of International Artist Day on 25 October, we share the story of Foundation Studies alum and renowned installation artist 'Red' Hong Yi.

Red Hong Yi

Socks. Carnations. Coffee spills. Chopsticks by the thousands. It seems anything is an art material in the capable hands and big-picture imagining of ‘Red’ Hong Yi (TCFS 2004).

Hailed by the Sotheby’s Institute of Art as one of the ‘11 world art entrepreneurs you should know’ in 2018, Red’s work has been commissioned by Google, Gucci and the Mandarin Oriental. For Facebook Singapore, she created a mural with 15,000 charred, layered chopsticks. She’s even built an extraordinary portrait of martial arts superstar Jackie Chan for his Shanghai office. In 2019, she was named Trinity College's inaugural FS Alum of the Year.

Born into an art-loving family in Sabah, Malaysia, Red (a nickname and now her professional handle) credits her year in the Trinity College Foundation Studies program as integral to her personal and intellectual growth. And, it was lots of fun. ‘Going to Melbourne and catching the train … it felt as though I was growing up!’ she laughs.

‘When I talk about Trinity, I just smile because it was such a great year for me. I was experiencing a totally different education system from the one at home. At Trinity, teachers were super encouraging and really passionate,’ she says. 

Her Foundation Studies year informed Red’s art, too, with ‘an explosion of ideas’ and a discovery of environmental issues.

‘History of Ideas was a really important subject for debating different topics and helping develop critical thinking,’ says Red. ‘I just wish I was more outspoken in class as we were free to debate issues without feeling there was a right or wrong answer.’

She also made friends for life with her Palmerston House roommates – they chat daily and catch up at least once a year, usually in Singapore, to ‘hang out and talk.’

When Red left Melbourne after nine years with a degree in planning and design and a Master of Architecture from the University of Melbourne, she seemed destined for a desk job. Her early career took her to Shanghai where she worked for the Australian architectural company Hassell. During this time she expressed herself on weekends, building installations with affordable materials scrounged at markets. With encouragement and support from her employer, it wasn’t long before she made the leap from hobbyist to professional artist.

She has since taken on an extraordinary range of work all over the world. A portrait of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou made from socks. ‘Butterfly Lovers’, a colourful seven-metre mural for the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco fashioned from tea leaves. A portrait of Ai Weiwei using 100,000 sunflower seeds. 

Many of her acclaimed projects are documented in quirky and highly shareable videos. More than simple promotion, Red sees the recordings as an extension of her work; they illuminate the process and highlight difficulties, effort and problem solving.

In one, she defeats legendary actor and martial arts king Jackie Chan in a chopstick duel, telling him her secret is practice, having dealt with 64,000 chopsticks to make his sixtieth birthday portrait. Red recalls nearly missing this impressive CV opportunity (both the fight and the portrait) when, caught up in Chinese New Year celebrations in 2014, she didn’t respond to the unassuming email from an art director asking her to do a portrait for ‘his boss’. It wasn’t until a later email arrived that she realised the boss was Jackie Chan. 

‘He was wonderful to work with. Very much like his on-screen character … funny, talkative, very charismatic,’ she says.

By Michelle Fincke

This article first appeared in issue 87 of Trinity Today.

23 Oct 2020
Category: Foundation Studies