words Eve Upton-Clark
At a time where a government-mandated lockdown is in place, working from home has become the new normal, and panic-buying and toilet roll hoarding are the conversations dominating headlines, the new reality we are all experiencing is feeling pretty surreal.
Within a matter of months, the Coronavirus pandemic has completely upturned the daily lives of people across the world, with 1,215,873 confirmed cases globally and 65,659 deaths at the time of writing. With the constant stream of news, government updates, and social media responses the global conversation about the outbreak is, at this point, unavoidable. But those seeking a different perspective on the crisis, or those just craving some light-hearted relief, may look to the ways in which the art world is responding during these unsettling times.
The surreality of the situation has been astutely captured by Hong Kong-based surrealist artist, Tommy Fung, who has created a series of Coronavirus-inspired artwork on his Instagram. Featuring citizens in protective hamster balls, stampedes of people chasing the elusive protective facemask and motorbike-riding police officers with coronavirus particles in place of faces, Tommy is using his art to speak up about the virus and the effect it is having on the city and its community. “All my artworks are about daily life in Hong Kong,” he tells me, “so when this pandemic began my sources of inspiration were the news, the government’s response and people’s reactions.”
Born in Hong Kong, Tommy moved back to the city from Venezuela in 2016 and founded his Instagram account, SurrealHK, in 2017, which now has amassed over 60.5k followers. Recently winning the Discovery: Photography Prize competition held by the Affordable Art Fair in collaboration with Hotel Jen, Tommy’s work injects photography with humour. With the help of Photoshop, he reminds people not to take life too seriously whilst also discerningly drawing attention to social and environmental issues present in Hong Kong.
When asked about the role of surrealist art in contemporary society, Tommy explains, “I think Surrealism used to be a way to show how crazy the world could be but now the real world is even more surreal than the imagination of artists like me.” Taking inspiration from people’s reactions, Tommy uses his art to capture the incongruity of the situation at hand, “People were queuing overnight to try buy face masks at the beginning, that’s so surreal,” he tells me. “You could see the happiness on the faces of those who got one and the looks of desperation on those who didn’t. And all for a non-expensive item like a face-mask.”
Starting with an idea and a message to communicate, the actual editing process can take from a couple of hours all the way up to thirty, depending on the difficulty and the details of the piece. Using Instagram as his chosen platform to present his work, the painstaking process is juxtaposed against the instant gratification of social media. Embracing a different mode of appreciating art that responds to our current society’s desire for immediacy, Tommy explains, “In my case I create eye-catching images that exaggerate social issues to make them more obvious and easier to understand. Different art can connect different people to make them see something that normally they don’t pay attention to and I think art plays a very important role here. “
In light of the current crisis and apparent in his wider body of work, Tommy’s main inspiration is drawn from the people that inhabit Hong Kong. “Hong Kong people are fighters. This is the most expensive city in the world and people keep fighting every day to have a place to live and eat. People fight when they see the democracy is being threatened and people fight when the government unfairly treats its citizens.” Balancing the social commentary with an element of light-heartedness that surrealism often can display, Tommy points to his upbringing in Venezuela, “Comedy is part of the personality of Venezuelan people. They can make jokes even in the most difficult situations, always looking at the positive side, as do I. Now I apply that in my artworks to try make people laugh.”
At such times of fear and anxiety, outlets of creative expression are not only ways to connect and communicate but also sometimes alleviate the gravity of the situation in favour of embracing the surreal. “Art is a way to express ourselves, to entertain people and create awareness at the same time. It’s a way to connect with others during this time of self-isolation and social distancing,” says Tommy. Surrealism traditionally aimed to revolutionise human experience, asserting the value of the unconscious and dreams whilst rejecting a rational version of life. With surrealist artists finding beauty in the unexpected and uncanny, perhaps we can adopt these principles to find grounding and value in such uncertain times and be comforted by the human experience and sense of community that artists like Tommy work to convey.