Kim Lim: The Sculpture of Empathy
A small retrospective of Kim Lim’s sculpture and prints took place at the Roundhouse Gallery in north London in spring 1979, and soon after Lim began her first carvings in stone. Both events were important for the future direction of her work. The adoption of stone was significant: for twenty years she had mostly used wood, supplemented by steel, aluminium, brass, fibreglass and plastic, and by paper, always chosen with great care for the printmaking that she considered “of equal importance to me”. The exhibition was auspicious because by assembling work spanning twenty years “it made me very aware of the pull within myself between the ordered, static experience and the dynamic rhythms of organic, structured forms,” she concluded. “How to incorporate and synthesise these two seemingly opposed elements within one work became… the starting point for the … stone sculptures.”
This essay attempts to trace Lim’s concerns through the years that led to this moment, the threshold of this exhibition. Without attempting this context, an important characteristic of a resourceful and intelligent artist risks being obscured: Lim’s willingness, indeed her natural tendency, to look back into her past practice to uncover new possibilities. Her work unfolded in a cyclical way that thrived on invention and review. For although materials changed, her attitudes were largely established early in her working life to be modified only in terms of their increasingly articulate expression. “I have always been more concerned with space, rhythm and light,” she reaffirmed in later years, “ than with volume and weight.” As a result, favourite imagery and themes recurred at intervals to be explored afresh in new materials and distinguished by new insights. Lim’s art was deeply informed by sensitive observation and by travel, so an allusion to journeying in her own progress as an artist was appropriate, as when she admitted that “when you go back again, you realise how much you’ve missed.”
As she sought a route back to “my favourite method of working, carving”, Lim could consult sculptures in wood created up to the mid-1960s when she was most involved with the technique. Their continuing relevance as a source of knowledge was apparent; many dated from her final year at the Slade to the ICA group show in 1961 that first included her work, and displayed features that prefigured later stone pieces. The blocky appearance, for example, meant that their natural state was not lost in its transformation into an artificial creation of the artist. This juxtaposition interested her as she drew out qualities and textures by polishing and incising the surface, “colouring” areas with a blow torch and, on occasion, retaining the bark.
The play between smooth and rough surfaces, of dark and light woods existed in King, Queen, Pawn (1959), a piece that examined the relationship of two upright, jointed wedge shapes and a recumbent cylinder on a tabular base. Already forming in this important carving was Lim’s view that the base was integral with the work itself, in the manner of Giacometti’s figure sculptures. Indeed, her techniques often engaged in a fond dialogue with sources that spanned the gamut of art history. Brancusi was one acknowledged inspiration, especially in this regard. The bird-like silhouette of Borneo II (1964) may also evoke his potent economy with common idealised forms. But Lim’s handling of imagery went beyond Brancusi’s formal repertoire, and opened itself to modification by each material’s distinct properties. This approach gathered impetus in the late carvings as she discovered with excitement stone’s prolific qualities.
Lim seldom made big sculpture, that is, work taller than a person: King, Queen, Pawn is under three feet tall. Yet in their conception her compact, enigmatic forms repeatedly implied monumental associations that reverberated beyond their modest scale. Of Maquette (1965), a simple, rhythmic pattern of identical aluminium segments around an open core standing six inches on its base, she said:“though the piece was small, the scale was large… to make it large [as later occurred], for instance as a sculpture in a public place, would not, I feel, be a violation of its capability.” There was also a practical dimension to working with small volumes. Although scale was habitually fixed before she started, the idea of form changed as she worked. Preferring to work unaided to keep this process intense, she had to be able to move the material herself. When fabrication was handed to a factory, as when she used fibreglass, the critical decisions had been worked out, usually in full-sized models in hardboard.
From an early stage Lim was receptive to the directness of analogy and symbolism of archaic sculpture. As a student in London from 1954 on return trips to her native Singapore, she would stop off wherever she could, and she recalled “a fantastic feeling of confirmation” when she first encountered sculpture from the Cyclades in Athens museums: “I’d had the dim sense of some such simplicity, some such silence, but I never imagined the full impact [of] their great scale from … practically nothing. They were almost immaterialised in their translucent marble.” Her carvings can still bring to mind the display of fragments from a distant past whose meaning is lost but which nevertheless evoke a human or spiritual presence. This empathy with the hieratic forms of ancient civilisations was reinforced by the experiences of more extensive travel. Often accompanied by William Turnbull whom she married in 1960, she visited places of cultural importance in East and West – the rock temples excavated in the hillside at Ellora, for instance, and sites in China not easily accessible to the outsider. The quietude and containment in her work also responded to locations where effects of nature – erosion by fast-running water, or the movement of light – were at their most distinct.
By returning to carving Lim was not turning her back on the constructed objects that occupied her in the 1970s; rather, they contributed to the equilibrium she was seeking. Around 1967 she departed from integral pieces made of interrelated parts in favour of replicated modules in which light activated the space “trapped” between them. Two series, Intervals (1973) and Interstices (1977), consisted of evenly spaced, ladder-like units fabricated in unpainted pine by craftsmen following Lim’s precise models. Simple repetition in prescribed permutations heightened their visual impact with light and shadow creating patterns that echoed the form of units placed against the wall or floor, sometimes “floating” on barely visible supports. The resulting rhythms appeared as natural to the work as a human pulse or a repeated note that adds resonance in music; light made them “more ‘physical’ or ‘comprehensible’”, creating “a structure that would sustain a certain rhythm, where space is not emptiness but a palpable reality.” The shadow-holding lines that she subsequently sank into stone pursued the effect dynamically, while confounding associations with mass remained an enduring aspiration.
Lim admitted that “I have used materials simply as a means to get what I want.” Stone, originally selected as the “obvious choice” for a commissioned fountain, allowed her to “incorporate if possible the element of change and surprise” that she missed in the static forms of the seventies. Reluctant to readmit volume and weight into her synthesis, the 1960s may have offered another way forward. At that time she “was looking for a way to imply form, to indicate it without stating mass” and experiments with painted blockboard and steel enabled her to slim mass into the single impact of a frontal plane a few inches thick. Sharply outlined edges in Borneo II rendered mass tenuous but walking around this sculpture provided “an explanation rather than a discovery.” From this evolved her interest in negative form, a notion of volume eroded as if by active, ambient space to leave form that still holds its own. By the 1990s Lim was making even slate appear weightless, prompting the wonder of discovery that needed no explanation.
12 July 1999