Social designer and art director Yi-Fei Chen joined us for an talk about her work and inspirations. The exhibition ONWARD&UPWARD – Art in the Garden of Life presents two projects by Yi-Fei.
What does Yi-Fei associate the phrase ‘onward and upward’ with? “It’s a way of going on. It’s a revolution,” she says. And so her work Tear Gun, made in 2016, fits strongly.
The project was Yi-Fei’s graduation work at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where she obtained her Master’s Degree in Social Design. Born and raised in Taiwan, she was not accustomed to the directness between students and docents. During a confrontation with her mentor she did not know how to express herself and became overwhelmed with emotions. In the moment, she saw the tears that had come up as the messengers of her frustration and visualized them as laser beams. But how could she use them to defend herself?
For her graduation project, Fei designed a brass gun that collects her tears in a high pressure bottle and freezes them, ready to fire. And that’s what she did during the graduation presentation. She fired her gun at the mentor in question. By freezing the tears, she did not change their essence, but their status. She turned her vulnerability into something powerful.
By freezing the tears, she did not change their essence, but their status. She turned her vulnerability into something powerful.
Her recent and ongoing project Cov19 is a direct response to the pandemic. Since many months, face masks have become a part of everyday routines around the world. In most Western cultures, face covering is considered to constitute a loss of individuality and authenticity, whereas in many parts of the Eastern world, it is perceived as a collective safety measure.
“This project is very personal,” says Yi-Fei. “I started because I felt a culture shock during Covid 19. In Taiwan, wearing a mask is not only for sick people, but also for air pollution, to prevent from sunshine, for allergies, and to protect each other. It’s a collaboration. With the outbreak of Corona and the debate on wearing a mask here, I noticed some people were very angry, they thought it was nonsense.”
“I dived in the more irrational, emotional and cultural reasons for this difference. Here, people like to show their identity. They want to feel unique and expressive. This is different compared to my culture. We like to feel not to observed. We like to blend in the environment.”
With her research in mind, Yi-Fei designed Object 1 from the series, a see-through face mask. It is not only an answer to the ecological problems of single use masks (the plastic material she chose can be cleaned and is bendable so to easily carry along) but also an answer to the fear in Western cultures of losing identity and individuality: the mask keeps facial expressions visible. Because Yi-Fei designed it not only for its function, it became an accessory that enhances the identity of the person wearing it instead of hiding it.
Yi-Fei sees the object as a fashion statement that goes beyond medical prevention. “I don’t want to only focus on the function. I think this pandemic won’t end very soon. If we only focus on functionality or scientific research, we forget about the humans.”
"If we only focus on functionality or scientific research, we forget about the humans.”
Currently, Yi-Fei is expanding the series with an accessories for the hand, a response to the awareness of hygiene and the fear of touching. “We used to hug and touch to show that we care. But now, keeping distance is showing you care.” Her new piece adapts to this situation.
The willingness to adapt yourself to your surroundings, instead of adapting the surroundings to yourself, is something Yi-Fei learned from a young age, growing up and being educated in Taiwan. “We tend to change our way of thinking to deal with different situations. You learn to be fluent and flexible. Sometimes, asking your environment or other people to change is difficult. Why not start for yourself.”
Yi-Fei Chen is a social designer and art director from Taiwan, who currently lives and works in The Netherlands. She finished her Master’s degree in Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2016.