Chen Yi Fei: Exploring Facemasks in Covid-19
TLmag spoke to Taiwanese designer Chen Yi Fei about her work COVID-19 which explores the discussion around the appearance of the facemask.
With the Covid-19 crisis is fundamentally affecting countries across the globe, the need to rethink and redesign our current way of living is growing. Specifically in Western societies, that have not had recent experiences with such a crisis. We see this specifically in the enormous societal discussions concerning the appearance of facemasks in the Western Western market. Chen Yi Fei, a Taiwanese social designer currently based in the Netherlands, is fascinated by the tumultuous welcoming of the facemask in her surroundings and designed COVID-19, a facemask, herself as an exploration of the debate and social aspects. TLmag talked to her from a Western perspective about her work, experiences, and shared some future speculations with us.
As a designer with an East-Asian background currently immersed in a Western context, Chen was quite taken with the difference in handling the pandemic. The SARS-outbreak of 13 years ago is apparently still influencing life in East-Asian culture according to Chen: ‘’Where I grew up, facemasks are not only for sick people. We are very aware of the dangers and how to deal with the virus, for which the facemask is a daily measure. My experience of the crisis in Europe is that even though it is very serious here people are hesitant to use them.’’ Her experience prompted the design of COVID-19, a delicate facemask that explores cultural differences within the crisis. On the one hand, the piece is covering the mouth, on the other, it is made with transparent materials. She points out that this is a translation of how she sees Western society: ‘’I’d argue that covering your face is often seen as hiding your identity or authenticity, here.’’ Moreover, the design leaves space between the mask and the face, again, designed to function in a ‘liberal’ Western society.
Chen is not the first designer to react to the pandemic with a facemask, as we see a surge of facemasks in the fashion design field. From New Balance to Fendi, and from H&M to Gap, every brand seems to launch a new facemask on the market. Chen reflects: ’’I can see (fashion) designers are very eager to work with the crisis. And in a way, it is good since this is a new reality and we all need protection.’’ However, with the massive appearance of facemasks the danger of mass production is on the horizon: ‘’I made a point of it to be sustainable, it had to be re-usable. Many (medical) facemasks you can only wear once. My project is developed in sustainable fashion and it is reusable. You can come home, and clean it to use it again. Just like glasses.’’ As she easily compares a facemask to an object the Western world is used to wear on a daily basis she reveals how this ‘strange’ tool should be welcomed, according to her.
True enough, perhaps the ‘Western ideals’ should be questioned in order to integrate these objects into the new pandemic reality. Looking back at the history of facemasks in Europe, we can actually see that facemasks have been used in the past, in the outbreak of the Spanish flu or the Black Death for example. Chen reflects: ‘’We need to remember that this measure is not for the person wearing it, but actually an altruistic act. It is to protect your surroundings, not yourself.’’ She makes a fair point, it is time to look at the facemask in a different perspective. Not only because it is necessary now, perhaps it was already necessary but Europe just did not see this before the fact.