The Man Behind Desire: Interview with Tim Yip


“Have you ever seen the mountains bathed in shafts of red and interwoven with endless sea of clouds? The bloody red shafts are fiery and lucid, eagerly mirroring the sky. At such a moment, it feels like that we exist in a timeless space. Underneath our feet is the solid earth of history, and above our heads is the lucid red splendor carrying the reflection of the sky. There, no differentiation exists.” — Tim Yip in ‘Rouge: L’art de Tim Yip’

We walked through the bitter Beijing cold, a blood red sunset is crusted with frost, and enter Tim Yip’s anonymous looking studio on the outskirts of the city. A warm open space containing his sculptures and scattered pieces of his works greet us, leading up to a loft style work space for his production team and assistants. The man himself sits alone in his office, wearing the coy, concentrated smile and baseball cap, that are so familiar to those who know him. Since our first meeting, Yip has always appeared serene, with a calm, focused intensity alluding to a preoccupation with philosophising; upon closer inspection Yip would appear to be the eye of the storm, a commander of chaos, and just what we need to shake things up.

The effect of theatre or film is not only gaged by the screenplay, actors’ performances or ambience, they are also evoked through costume, locations, makeup, and art direction — aimed to create a single beautiful moment that could captivate an audience for decades. Tim Yip, our esteemed guest director for this issue of WestEast Magazine, has become a master in all these arts, and has now ventured into a world of photography, fine art, installation and sculpture.

Actually, you will all know of Yip — perhaps not by name, but most will seen his work in action. How does one forget the legendary fight taking place in the emerald green bamboo grove in the now infamous film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or the momentous scenes in ‘Red Cliff’ (to date, Asia’s biggest budget cinematic production)? They are Tim Yip creations; that earned his title as the first Chinese to ever win the prestigious Academy Awards Oscar.

For Yip, it has been a long path to reach this level of repute. He was born to a poor family in Hong Kong in 1965. Spending his childhood in a cramped small apartment where he lived with 7 others, young Yip revealed an amazing talent for the arts. Unfortunately, his family didn’t support him, and he grew in the shadow of his outstanding elder brother. A sense of repression pervaded this period of his life, but like all good artists, Yip would turn melancholy into flourishing creativity.

After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University with a degree in Photography, Yip came to notice of Xu Ke, a famous Hong Kong Kung-Fu film director who then introduced Yip to John Woo as an assistant director. It was initially difficult for Yip to find his place, so he left Asia for soul searching in Europe at 25, an experience that would profoundly affect the rest of his life. Attracted by the notions of the West, avant garde movements and the creative freedom it offered, Yip set on this journey to discover other cultures, opening his eyes to novel forms and experiences, Yip re-finds his confidence, and finally his style.

From movies he has worked on such as ‘A Better Tomorrow’, ‘The Banquet’, or ‘Orange Turn Ride’, to ‘Temptation of A Monk’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, or more recently ‘Red Cliff’, Yip expresses things as a mix between, neither purely Chinese nor purely Western. His work might be described as representing Asian sensibilities and expressions in a new variety of non-traditional forms. By exploring other ways such as the literary with ‘Flower of the Wind’, sculpture with his famous ‘Floating Leaf’, as well as poetry, Yip proves he is a consummate artist.

With his artistic exhibitions, which feature photography, costume, installation work as well as well as sculpture, Yip asks the audience to embark upon a pilgrimage, to forsake their present existence and join him the pursuit of mental liberty, catching a little bit of eternity imprinted on the pieces of his work.

Yip’s craft now has achieved world status, he has found a unique compromise between modern and classic, art and commerce, West and East. Yip will continue to unfold in the most surprising of ways, having already earned the highest accolades in costume design and film. Instead of resting on his laurels, this multi-talented artist goes on to experiment with continuously different mediums. Instead of safety, Yip choses challenge, reminding us all of that old saying, “that we must take great risks to reap great rewards”.

His initial response to the theme of SPICE involved expressing “danger seductively mixed with stimulation”, here WestEast give you segments of our multiple conversations and interviews with Tim Yip. We hope that you can feel, if even just a touch, the inspiration and wisdom that seduced us.

Who or what is your muse?

I always ask myself one question: what pushes me to look for some sort of resonance. I think it’s a transcendent warmth hiding deep within my heart, a streak which I finally touched at my first solo art exhibition “Illusions of Silence” at Beijing T oday Art Museum. An obscure but powerful feeling touched my innermost core, huge but pure. The two exhibits brought me a delight that I have never felt before; they released what I had repressed deep inside. Following these was a piece called “Desire”, in which a young body, with a clean, graceful appearance, weeps in a dark room, face to face with her body shattered into pieces. The story behind this sculpture invovles my experiences and my good memories.

Many of your recent artworks that speak upon a more pure art (instead of a commercial project) seem to possess a certain melancholy and loneliness. Why is this? Are you a natural loner?

A long time ago, I realized that my personality is very extreme; on the one hand, I love company, and on the other hand, I crave privacy. But I have always loved expressing myself through art. For more than a decade I indulged in a hustle. Through participating in artistic and commercial projects, my antisocial self gradually become more comfortable within a crowd. In 2007, a fantastic opportunity brought fine arts to me, and brought me into fine arts, at which point I discovered lots of interesting things, my repressed side was finally unleashed. Some have said that I am a pessimist, but I believe that I have always had an optimistic streak, existing alongside an enduring sense of loneliness.

How do you distinguish the nature of your commercial and non commercial works… is there a different process for each?

I think that the way I see art is the only way to see anything. Regardless of whether it is for a commercial or an artistic project, I always begin by considering how to make a great piece of artwork. The only difference between the two is that with commercial projects, there are technical factors to consider. When creating fine art, I am really hard on myself, and give myself severe criticism. The difficulty of fine art lies in, when creating both form and content, discerning the core of its spirit. Just a little modification could be enough to ruin the work’s power and value.

You are now a master of film, from the details of makeup and costume to the overall art direction of a whole cinematic experience and recently you have moved to installations, photography and sculpture. What makes you so curious about different forms?

I think that making movies provides me with the satisfaction of greater influence and visibility. I have gradually trained my own crew with whom I explore new artistic directions. This mission is enough to make my life feel useful and bring me pleasure, but at the same time, my discontented side is hungry to destroy and create new things. I have a lot of questions about the origin of my culture. This desire emerged as a mere pastime, but the pastime has gradually come to be the thing my artist friends comment on.

You say that for you “the line between different media does not exist. ” W ould you ever just focus on one form of art or would you be bored of such singularity?

A long time ago I was determined to give my life to film, but its commercialism eventually aroused my doubts about the decision. My life hit a low, at which point I realized that I had to find another direction. A crunch came in 1993: I decided to turn my attention to designing theatre stages and costumes, probably because of my unalterable devotion to the arts. I eventually got into advertising and other media work; and in Taiwan I was presented with lots of opportunities to combine art with different media without compromising to commercialism. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ represents my first attempt to turn from pure art and stage design to film. I think that as a designer, my attitude is to keep seeking new directions, to keep approaching boundaries, and to keep discovering new possibilities through transgression.

In “Rouge” you talk about ‘emptying yourself’ when creating a piece of work and allowing the medium and the core images to guide you. Could you extrapolate a little more on this? What fills the emptiness?

Before I begin an artwork, I see myself as a skilful artisan who does his work humbly, in uniform. This humbleness carries peace and tolerance that enable one to handle all contingent changes, and this is the contrast between what we call “men” (full) and “kung” (empty). Before I create something, I learn, through my works in forms of other media and in-depth research, all I didn’t know previously, so that when I work, I can do whatever I want to transgress all boundaries and establish my own originality.

‘Desire’ is a piece which resonates with almost everyone that we have shown it to. Could you tell us more about your inspiration behind it and why you think it is so emotive?

I am glad she is appreciated by others. I never thought my artistic development would approach the universe of sculpture. The experience is very special. The exploration of languages and visions originally brought me to fine art, at which point sculpture was the very first thing I thought of. I was reminded of the sincere interest I felt in the Greek and Roman sculpture that I saw in Europe. The majesty and solemnity of the men depicted, and the tenderness, sensuality and voluptuousness of the women aroused my interest in creating. I could almost imagine how much effort it must once have taken to complete such grand sculptures. The motivation must have come from their sheer desire for perfection and worship of youthfulness.

This motivation has also inspired sculptors all over the world in their depiction of Mother Earth, military heroes, and later, the Gods of different religions. Buddha statues resembled an Indian; those in Xiyu wore valuable jewellery to indicate his superiority. In China, sculptors made Buddha with a Chinese face. You can find the Chinese depiction of Buddha in sculptures from the Wei Tsin Nan Pei Dynasty . Their aesthetics, their sensations, are the state of perfection that “Desire” pursues. The sculpture is not only a depiction of a human face, but also a heart; which is the purest, most perfect form of art.

Eternal but fragile, desire exists in people’s hearts, but at the same time, they want to destroy her. She maintains her flawless beauty, which is why she is in so much danger. She sees all this, and that’s why she weeps. Her tears arouse both sympathy and hate in others; she enlightens the purity and the darkness of humanity; she reminds us of our utmost desires — which is the meaning of her existence.

Your work is always emotive; do you consider yourself an emotional person?

I am definitely an emotional being. I also believe in using my affections to approach the world, express the world, and create art.’

What was the most difficult period of your career?

Having to decide my direction was a hard task, because for one thing, I was not sure what each direction represents, and in addition, having to connect with reality and gaining the approval of others aroused my doubts. In this era, to persist with one concept is extremely difficult, but I have infinite concepts to achieve. So at each stage of my life, there seem to be many hopeless dilemmas, which all eventually pass unrecognized.

How did winning the Oscar for ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ change you and your life?

The Oscar was an incredible motivation: it convinced me that everything is possible, and thus gave me a green light to try out what I always wanted to. Growing up, I was solitary and repressed and thus denied my own desire, which, once the opportunity came, began to flame. Right now the most valuable thing to me is self-exploration: to discover characters of myself and others in my journey of life.

Since you have worked with so many of Asia’s biggest stars, John Woo, Ang Lee, Takeshi Kineshiro, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Andy Lau, Michelle Yeoh, Lin Chi-ling, to name just a few, how do you think the Asian film industry will develop in the coming years?

Predictably Asian films are more 
recognized now. Due to the current political and economic situation, Chinese films are becoming the top in Asia, and a world influence.

Chinese films may be divided into two different types: realistic dramas and movies made in the alternative style developed in 1980s Hong Kong. The former type, which includes Chen Kaige’ s ‘ Y ellow Earth’ and ‘F arewell My Concubine’ , Zhang Yi-mou’ s ‘Life Times’ and ‘Red Sorghum’, and Hou Hsiao-hsien’ s ‘Dust in the Wind’ and ‘ A City of Sadness’ are doing well in the market. Of the latter type, some are re-interpretations of the style of the massive productions, like John Woo’s films; the rest are about efficiency and rhythm, like Tsui Hark’s.

These are very influential, but our current challenge is to build a new , sustainable universal language on the foundation of existing film languages. This represents an important challenge to the Chinese people. We need to improve our creativity, methods of systemisation, technical skills, and cultural sensibility, for a ticket into the international market.

Do you think that China will embrace contemporary masterpieces in the future or have continued taste for ones set in Imperial China?

Because of the restrictions set by a certain time, the Chinese movies have never been very far removed, in terms of style, from ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. Use of this style seems to ensure a quality that suits the international market and taste — but we never progress beyond it. How should we break out of this strange boundary? Does it depend on the government examination system, the visions of the investors, the capabilities of the producers, or the maturity of the creators?

In a new age of Chinese modernity, from social reforms to its contemporary art boom, you are still a major fan of traditional forms of ancient China. Why this fascination?

As a teenager, I was addicted to the avant- garde, especially the New York avant-garde: I fell in love with it. But as I saw more and more jaw-dropping contemporary art, I began to have doubts and realised that I am not interested in creation inspired by nothing but a vague concept. I believe in a personal, instinctive response to art. Contemporary art grabs my attention because it deals with impossibilities; those come from life but have nothing to do with life.

Since the advent of Dadaism at the beginning of the century, conceptual art has dominated the world of contemporary art, whereas my interest lies in tracing the origin of art and the true identity of the human, and the many and various changes brought about by the nature of such existences. Forget about the coldness of Modernism, and begin with Classicism; which I believe represents the evolution of the future avant-garde, and will build up the foundation of the new era.

You told us that you moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan early on in your career because Taipei’s creative scene was more inspiring. Do you think this is still the case? How did Taiwan nurture you as an artist?

I went to Taiwan in 1993, and most enjoyed hanging around in bookstores, where the literary atmosphere was richer than in Hong Kong. There were nice cafés nearby, so that I could enjoy learning and clearing my mind. One of the most important things about Taiwan is the sense of cultural identification. Many of my friends, who are artists and writers, are still making their living through art. Some have said that T aiwan is full of sadness: the T aiwanese are obsessed with this helpless feeling, which somehow infuses their character.

Now, as a different political party comes into power, having expended massive amounts of energy, the process of change is still directed by ideology. But rarely in Taiwan, many small and medium-scale creative groups persist in creating art; which is why Taipei continues to have the best reading atmosphere in the region.

Why did you finally decide to settle in Beijing? Was it more a love for the city or for practical reasons?

Fate led me to stay in Beijing. After ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, I found lots of great creative opportunities in the city. It was the time when the movie industry in Beijing came to its prime; and the film was the first of many massive productions in China that I was involved in. At the same time, the possibility for me to be involved in international projects arose.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics became an unprecedented demonstration of the speed of change in China. No place on earth could adapt to change at such a speed; no city could change in such a short period of time.

Greater China is fabulous; she provides me with a plethora of creative possibilities, and resources with which to trace my roots. I like the old streets in Beijing; the tableaux of phoenix trees and old shops are unique. The mixture of modern and ancient elements suits my style perfectly.

You have said that “my heart is an empty container ready to hold anything… Most of the time, my heart stays empty.” Please could you talk more about this? Is there anywhere your heart feels safe?

My heart has never settled down, but I have been trying to find a place to. I’m not the type of person to initiate change, but sometimes I realize that I’m too ready to take things as they are. Typically whenever a question comes to me, I solve it by instinct. I feel like I don’t have much to express; I trust my innate attitude to exterior realities.

When I don’t have any questions, I simply feel empty. I don’t think about anything; I don’t do anything — and perhaps this is my chief blessing. When questions arise, I try my best to solve them. Sometimes success at work provides me with a flash of satisfaction and security, but such victories are soon gone. My entire creative life endeavours to chase such short-term satisfactions.

What has been your greatest achievement?

I believe my greatest achievement is to have proved the consistency of my heart, whatever hardships or failures I have faced, it has always remained the same. At the same time, my heart advances continuously and relentlessly . It ventures deep into different territories to unearth materials to nourish my interests. Throughout my career, I have excelled in destruction and re-construction.

How do you maintain your inner peace in the midst of all this chaos?

Everyone possesses his own unique character, which develops in different stages. As time passes, everyone becomes selective in his tastes, which is why we love and hate. In the world of the subject, this is an obstacle.

I was very little when I realized that my soul would one day burst the bounds of my self, and seek satisfaction in innovation. This idea caused me to suffer deeply: I became lost in a maze of self-isolation and radicalism; I barely communicated with others; I solved my own problems without asking for help.

Changes, adaptation, and the constant pursuit of new possibilities all played their part in shaping my success. My youthful qualities have since empowered me to extract myself from confusion and stay calm in times of difficulty. I feel as if my mind is always in pieces: it swings between diversities, complexity, solitude and fervour.

This is why my words are hard to understand.

I can find peace nowhere. I really can’t stand a stable world.

Text: Jing Zhang

English Translation: Ren Wan

Images Courtesy of Tim Yip Productions

Published in Issue 27 Spice, 2009