How Red Hong Yi entered an “Alibaba cave” and launched meme NFTs on the other side
Monetising meme money
Red Hong Yi was an architect before she became an artist. But life often has a funny way of changing one’s career priorities. Based in Shanghai over a decade ago, the Malaysian, along with her artistic sensibilities, was lured by the metropolis’s energy and its anything-is-possible vibes.
“I started creating artworks with everyday objects and materials when I was living in China,” she recalls. “The artworks were an expression of objects I could source from my surroundings. I found sample markets absolutely fascinating. It was like walking into Alibaba’s cave in real life, and being able to pick an object that I wanted to purchase in bulk.”
Cue portraits of Asia’s most famous personalities using the most unexpected materials sourced from the "Alibaba’s cave" she described. There’s Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s art installation composed of sunflower seeds; film director Zhang Yimou with 2,000 socks; pop star Jay Chou with coffee cup stains; as well as Aung San Suu Kyi with 2,000 dyed carnations.
“I started out wanting to create portraits of well-known Chinese personalities, or Chinese figures who were appearing in the media in China. I felt that China was a different world and that the media industry was so different within and outside of the country.” Her original intent of creating these portraits, she says of her initial art projects, was to show her friends the people “who were highlighted in the media then, and use materials that had a linkage to these personalities’ backgrounds”.
Post-architecture career and since her time in China, Red is now a globally recognised artist. “I’ve lived in the US, Australia, and now I’m back in Malaysia, and I find that the objects I choose are an expression of the context or the environment around me,” she says.
Setting a blazing trail
In April 2021, Red designed an art installation for a Time magazine cover. Titled ‘Climate is Everything’, the artwork comprised 50,000 matches configured as a world map and was set on fire. Such dramatic installation-type techniques inform Red and her work. For her, it has always been and continues to be about making statements on the state of the world.
Red says the most recent as well as the most popular everyday object she has chosen to use for her art is pixels. “[These are] not tangible items. [Pixels] reflect how since the pandemic, so many of us have retreated [from the world] and are living in the virtual world,” she adds.
“Initially when I learned about NFTs, I was most interested in how it could be a proof of authenticity for an artwork.”
Her entry into the NFT art space is no different. “Initially when I learned about NFTs, I was most interested in how it could be a proof of authenticity for an artwork. I was also interested to explore how it can connect the physical to the digital,” Red says. But since April this year, her NFT art messaging has taken a similar point-making relevance as her conventional artworks.
Making memes and money
Her series of artworks called ‘Memebank’, Red reveals, is about spoofing banknotes inspired by fiat currencies, and replacing certain elements in these banknotes with meme culture.
“These banknotes were first created digitally, then turned into physical pieces through etching a master copper plate which acts as a main printing plate for banknotes. This copper plate and its banknote was turned into an NFT, and the owner of this NFT also owns the original master copper plate,” she explains her well-considered methodology.
According to Red, this is her “way of critiquing the role of central banks, [how] they have the power to print as many banknotes as they want. And similar to NFTs, there will only ever be one master copper plate.”
Banking for the future
What is the artist working on currently? A banknote piece depicting a little girl deciding her future. Believing the NFT world deserves a stronger feminine presence, she says that by portraying more women in artworks (such as World of Women) and speaking up about female representation in this space, other women artists will be encouraged to start creating NFT art.
The tale of Red’s Memebank series of NFTs is set to continue in 2022. She has already released five banknotes from the series—which were auctioned in November last year—with the final one set for February 2022. All of the pieces will be exhibited physically and virtually this year.
“I’m also interested in exploring how I can build a community of owners through PFP-based projects, and to build a stronger bond with people who back these projects.”
Red divulges that the most challenging thing about NFT art is “to detach myself from what I think art should be”. Art for her is always physical, but she has come to the realisation that to create physical pieces, she needs to do mock-ups digitally anyway. NFT art creation is about taking one extra step less but it’s also about wanting to push a digital medium forward in her own way. “This will be a challenge that I am looking forward to pushing and exploring,” she says.
She’s already rising to the challenge. “Since April , the world of NFTs has changed so much. I’m also interested in exploring how I can build a community of owners through PFP-based projects, and to build a stronger bond with people who back these projects,” Red says. She hints at the exciting fact that she could well be working on a CryptoKitties or CryptoPunks model of NFTs.
This article originally appeared on BURO Malaysia’s sister platform Brytehall on 3 January 2021.
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