Kim Lim exhibition opens at STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery
STPI Gallery honours Singapore-British artist Kim Lim
‘Kim Lim: Sculpting Light’ will be on show at STPI Gallery from 13 January to 3 March 2018. The exhibition will feature works from the late sculptor and printmaker across the mediums of wood, stone, marble and paper, on loan from the Estate of Kim Lim. These sculptures and paper works will demonstrate her masterful ability to create lightness and weightlessness in her minimalist, poetic works that encourage quiet meditation through their graceful lines and curves, and the subtle play between light and shadow.
Lim left Singapore at the age of 18 for London, where she enrolled first at Saint Martin’s School of Art and then at Slade School of Fine Art, focusing first on wood carving then on print-making. In 1960, she married the British artist William Turnbull and the couple, who had two sons Alex and Johnny, would travel extensively, including to Egypt, Turkey and to Southeast Asia. Their overseas adventures informed her artistic practice, which she continually sought to develop, including expanding her work to the mediums of stone and marble in the late 1970s, and at the same time continuing to make prints.
While Lim’s works have been exhibited widely, her last exhibition in Singapore took place more than three decades ago, at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1984. ‘Kim Lim: Sculpting Light’ will reintroduce the artist to the local art community and celebrate the accomplished artist in her own right. ART REPUBLIK spoke to Alex Turnbull, who takes care of the Estate of Kim Lim, to find out more about the artist, her inspirations and how the exhibition at STPI came about.
Lim was an artist who worked equally in sculpture and printmaking. How did these two mediums (or methods of working) inform each other for her?
Kim Lim started her creative life carving wood while studying at St Martin’s. She later enrolled in the Slade where she studied printmaking under the etcher Antony Gross and the lithographer Stanley Jones. Throughout her career she continued to work in two and three dimensions and regarded both as equally important. There is a direct correlation between her printmaking and her sculpture though one did not always precede the other.
Lim’s works are made up of elegant lines and curves in her sculptures and on paper. What was compelling about these to her as an artist and/or what do they represent?
From early on, and unusually for her generation, Lim was inspired by all Asian art. I say unusually because many of her generation and the previous generation had been scarred by the war. Her father, Lim Koon Teck, had been the magistrate left in charge to hand over to the Japanese when the British left Penang. As a result, he had a deep-rooted mistrust of the Japanese which made Kim Lim’s embracing of the Japanese aesthetic even more interesting.
Could you talk about the film ‘Beyond Time’ (2011) that focused on your father, the sculptor William Turnbull? There is a chapter on your mother. What compelled you to make the documentary, and what did you discover in the process about your mother that surprised you?
I felt it needed to be made and that no one else was going to do it, or would have been allowed the access to my father who was a very private man from a generation who, unlike today’s artists, were reluctant to talk about themselves. I realised that I had privileged access and took full advantage, convincing my father to share his experiences. The section on Kim Lim was vital to the film for a number of reasons. She was a vital component of his and our lives and she was taken from us way too soon. It was interesting to hear Bill saying that he regarded her as ‘one of the best artists’ he knew, no small compliment given his friendship with artists such as Giacometti and Rothko.
What was it about Constantin Brâncuși works, particularly ‘The Kiss’, that captivated Lim as an artist?
Brancusi was one of Kim’s heroes. One of the important things about ‘The Kiss’ is what happens when the two heads come together, and the spaces in between. Kim was fascinated by the power of the spaces in between.
How did your parents work together artistically and/or influence each other’s work over the years? Perhaps you could focus on or include a comment about how travel was particularly important to their work?
For both my parents, the creative process was a private thing though I would often see Kim wrapped up in her boiler suit and bandana carving away furiously in the back garden. As far as I am aware, they never “collaborated” on any works together but they travelled extensively throughout the near and far east, which had a tremendous influence on both of their work. It’s important to remember that Bill was a pilot during the war so had already travelled to India and Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) so he was receptive to travel at a time when hardly anyone travelled. The same was true for Kim having journeyed across the globe to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist. Not only were the places to have an influence, but also the materials they saw on these travels such as the stone from the Japanese gardens and the wood from Cambodian coffin makers, all of which would become reflected within their works.
What was it like growing up together with your brother Johnny in terms of observing and/or living with Lim as an artist? What is a favorite memory you have in the studio or elsewhere that might shed some light on her as an artist to our readers?
We grew up surrounded by art but at a time when very few people were interested in art. Our school friends would come to our house and point at the large painted steel works in the front garden and ask what they were. We assumed everyone had them in their houses. My mother had a huge printing press in her studio in the house. She would get Johnny and I to help her turn the wheel to make the prints. She would also give us small sections of the brass plates to do our own engravings.
How did the exhibition at STPI come about?
I met Emi a couple of years ago through a mutual friend E-Len Fu who has been a very strong supporter of my mother’s work. I think initially Emi was unsure if the show would work as the STPI generally works with living artists. However I received a call from her a few months later. She said she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Kim’s work and that she wanted to do a show. I was very happy, as it has been a mission of mine for Kim Lim to be recognized as one of the pioneers of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art.
Her last exhibition in Singapore was at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1984? Why do you think it has taken this long for another solo exhibition to be mounted in Singapore again, and why now?
This is for a number of reasons but primarily because art in Singapore hasn’t been seen till recently as something of importance. I guess Singapore has been a centre of commerce but it’s only as it has grown as a centre of Southeast Asian culture that the significance of art has become more prominent. Also, the opening of the new National Gallery Singapore and its large acquisition of works by Kim Lim is undoubtedly a significant factor.
I understand that both paper works and sculptures will be included in the exhibition at STPI. What are the highlights we can look forward to?
A beautiful and comprehensive display of prints and sculpture which reflects the breadth of Kim Lim’s work throughout her career as an artist.
In general, how important was simplification to Lim’s works and art practice as a whole?
Why was it that Lim generally made sculptures that were in “manageable” sizes that could be held or appraised at eye level, and not bigger?
Kim made a number of larger works such as ‘Spiral 3’ and ‘River Stone’ (1991) but these were limited. This is primarily because she, as with my father, never had any assistants and made all works by herself. As she carved everything by hand, this obviously dictated how large the works would end up.
In your opinion, what makes Lim’s sculptures and prints works to appreciate and admire?
Their peacefulness, their tactile quality and their simplicity.
What plans do you have for the Kim Lim estate in 2018? Will there be more Singapore/Southeast Asian-based projects?
We are working hard on all aspects of both her and my father’s work and hope to see her receiving the recognition she deserves as one of the pioneers of Southeast Asian art. It has been commented that she left Singapore but it’s important to remember she had to do this in order to pursue her career as an artist as it was impossible to follow this career path in Singapore during the 1950s. It has been a great source of satisfaction to see her and her work being shown and exhibited in the place of her birth.
This article was written by Nadya Wang for Art Republik Issue 17.