By NJ Stevenson
This summer I was invited to take part in the Cloud project which was the closing event for London’s Southbank Centre’s three year long China Changing festival and the result of a year long collaboration between the Southbank and the Chinese-based Tim Yip Studio. A film and stage art director, costume designer and visual artist, Yip is particularly well known for his Academy Award winning work on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) but works prolifically for stage and film productions, dance companies, art exhibitions and fashion collaborations.
Initially taking an environmentalist perspective, Cloud had developed into a huge multi-faceted project involving many people. Mei Hui Liu, a London-based Taiwanese sustainable fashion designer recruited prospective participants for Cloud in London. The project involved interviewing fifty London teenagers about their hopes and fears for the future and collaborating with twenty five London based fashion designers to create avant-garde costume from recycled materials.
As Tim Yip never works solely on a single project, he was also making a film about the East London arts community which would feed into Cloud. And there was also Lili, a life-size female mannequin who travels everywhere with Yip and is both a separate project and part of everything he produces. There would be a five metre version of Lili installed in the Royal Festival Hall.
The Cloud project would culminate in a live performance on October 7th. In June, when I spoke to Mei Hui, Cloud was under wraps as the designers worked on the costumes in London and the filmed interviews of the teenagers were being edited in Beijing. Mei Hui explained to me that they were looking for someone to shape this ever expanding creative process into a cohesive narrative that could be presented to an audience. London designer Marie Cantenys worked as costume coordinator, cycling between the studios of her fellow designers, discussing and photographing their progress, reporting back to Tim via Skype and relaying his feedback back to them. Skype was an integral part of the development process of the project and I got used to weekly online meetings between China and London.
With the help of the Southbank production team, we devised a way to pull together the strands of Cloud. All the teenagers who had been interviewed were invited to take part in the show and those available were to model the costumes. Availability was the only criteria, as the project had been devised to be as inclusive as possible. The objective was to give their generation a voice.
The interviews had consisted of four questions: Where are you from?; Who are you?; How do you see the world in a thousand years?; What are your hopes for the future?
The design process had been initiated by Yip, giving the London designers conceptual ‘stories’ of global concerns to be interpreted into costume. These ‘stories’ ranged from ‘Ocean’ which was a straightforward awareness of plastic pollution, to the more cerebral ‘Traveller,’ which represented the nomadic lifestyle of the inhabitants of a future world with depleted resources. I organized these ‘stories’ into the four categories of ‘Natural Environment’; ‘Man-made Environment’; ‘History’; and ‘Reformation’.
Four people who had been featured in the film about East End creativity, Love Infinity, were asked to come and speak on those four topics. Jenny, Francesca and Japhy, three of the teenagers, chorused answers to the four questions taken from the recorded interviews at intervals during the performance. The performance would conclude with the costume show. In this way, we constructed a narrative of origin, destruction, value and renewal which reflected Yip’s desire to consider the world that the next generation is inheriting. The effort to bring Yip’s creative vision into a holistic presentation took weeks of planning, coordinating and rehearsals. When the Tim Yip Studio team arrived from China, ten days before the show, we spent an intense period casting, fitting and choreographing – all the more daunting because of the constant presence of the camera crew.
Following the performance, there was an exhibition of the costumes in the Royal Festival Hall. The garments had to be hung in the air due to restrictions around objects being in touching distance, and a hanging strategy with wires had to be devised with the Southbank display team. I chose the ‘natural’ element of the Cloud narrative to be represented on the Green Side of the building, using the hanging technique to our advantage by installing a fan so that the ‘Air’, ‘Skin’, ‘Dust’ and ‘Forest’ moved in the wind. The Southbank is a public space so all installation has to take place overnight when the Centre is closed. The text space was also restricted so the labels resulted in a haiku-like explanation for each ‘story’ on the floor beneath each hanging costume. The display was contextualised with a video installation of an edit of the interviews made by the Studio. My carefully prepared exhibition plan had to be rethought, however, when a few days before the performance ‘Big Lili’, the five metre mannequin, was installed and it became apparent when I saw her that my design wouldn’t work.
I had originally intended that every contribution would be displayed, as the entire collection communicates a comprehensive narrative. On the Blue side of the building where Lili was to be, I had chosen to display the more colourful costumes made from synthetic materials to correspond with her huge silver coat to represent the ‘manmade’ element. However, Big Lili is an imposing presence and clearly needed space around her to make an impact. Hanging garments would have disturbed the audience’s line of vision. I needed to select the costumes that would make the strongest visual contribution to the narrative of Cloud and place them so that the display worked sympathetically with Tim’s installation. This also freed me to include only the more sculptural pieces which held their shape without the defining support of the body. The suspension of these works communicated the collaboration between their designers and Tim Yip in a different way – more as conceptual visual art than wearable costume.
The primary language that Yip uses to communicate is spectacle. The intention was to convey his vision of creative conversation between Chinese epic scale production and the artistic and liberal imagination of Londoners. My role was to communicate the processes of thinking behind the presentation, in both the mobile and static displays. To organise, edit, translate and narrate this into a story for the audience. In fact, while the installation team worked the cherrypicker in the deserted Royal Festival Hall at 5am in the morning, I mused it’s the closest I’ve come to accepting that the experience of ‘curation’ could extend beyond the gallery.
Read more about NJ’s research here