The Collision and Fusion of East and West: Hannah Lim

As a person of mixed Singaporean and British heritage, Hannah Lim creates furniture-like sculptures with a combination of both the East and the West elements in response to her cultural identity and experience. Forming the basis of Lim’s inspiration is her interest in Orientalism, and its relationship to Chinoiserie. She found the pieces in such themes rather interesting. “There was this weird cultural connection and resemblance because they reflected a part of me”, she told us.

She grew up in multicultural west London, which “kind of made you notice less that you’re different”, she explains. Even though she has never spent a significant amount of time in Singapore, Lim has always been interested in understanding that part of herself. When she came to study in Edinburgh, an environment quite different from the area where she was raised, “I think that feeling of difference made me want to look into my heritage even more than before.”

Lim studied at Central Saint Martins (London), the Edinburgh College of Art (University of Edinburgh) and is coming up to the last term of her Postgraduate study at the Ruskin School of Art (University of Oxford). She was shortlisted for the Astaire Prize (2019 and 2020), was the 2020 recipient of the RSA John Kinross Scholarship, and was selected as part of Bloomberg New  Contemporaries (2021) and RSA New Contemporaries (2022). Her work has been shown at exhibitions in New York, London, Edinburgh, Chengdu and Hong Kong. Her latest exhibition, In the Margins, opened at Commonage Projects (London) in April 2022. 

FRONTRUNNER spoke with Lim about her approach to make those delicate pieces, cultural identity, study in different places, and the joy of art.

Studio image of Hannah Lim at HOME x Cob Gallery Residency (London)
Photo credit: Ronan McKenzie

 

What’s your typical day like?

I usually go for a run in the morning, then I’ll come into the studio, and spend the whole day working there, whether in the workshops downstairs, or on my desk replying to emails, and other different things. After that I go home, have dinner and go to sleep, then wake up and repeat. Not being super exciting. Or go for a nice walk sometimes, because there’s lots of places to go walking here. The weather is really great at the moment as well, so I’ve been been doing that more.

What are the three things that you feel like you can’t live without in your studio?

The obvious things that I couldn’t make my work without them – paint, plywood, clay and jesmonite (a type of casting plaster). My laptop is pretty useful for music, watching things whilst I’m working which is nice as well. And books, I use a lot of imagery from different books to influence a lot of designs that I’m making. I suppose those are the pretty essential things to have in my studio.

The colour palette is so beautiful, how did you choose the colour when you make a work?

I have quite instantaneous sort of approach to colour, it’s all really natural. I don’t pre plan the colour too much, and I love it just unfold and happen. I see a lot of the works that I make as being part of large installation. So I sort of base my colour choices on the colours I already have. If I think I have too many sculptures that are purple or green, then I want some more red, some more blue. Also I pick colours based on the shape of the particular work. If It looks like a certain creature or a particular thing then I like choosing a colour based on that, but often my choice of colour is quite random.

Hannah Lim
Box of Beasts (2022)
Polymer clay, unique
Courtesy of the artist

 

And what kind of materials did you use to create these delicate pieces?

For the smaller pieces, I work with this type of clay called “polymer clay”. I grown up using it, so it was a natural thing to use that type of clay. I’d often use it to make little charms and different tiny little things, and I could get a lot of details with this clay and the colour as well, sort of matching the colour of my larger work. With the large pieces, either I cut them by hand, by laser, or I cut them on a CNC machine. Genuinely the best material for that usually is wood, also I can paint on it. It’s quite useful material to work with. Now with the larger pieces I use a combination of polymer clay and this type of plaster called “jesmonite” which is a really strong-wearing plaster. I use that plaster to cast the base of my largest snuff bottles, and all the details are made in this type of clay.

Based on the self-introduction on your website, you attempt to “re-imagine and reclaim ideas and designs associated with the Chinoiserie.” It sounds quite abstract, what’s the specific process to achieve that?

Chinoiserie basically was an 18th century design trend where European designers appropriated Chinese designs for the European market. A lot of pieces created through that style were a quite interesting blend of both European design and Chinese design. For me, those pieces were rather interesting because they reflected a part of me being half-Chinese and half-British. There was this weird cultural connection and resemblance. So I was really interested in that style, but I was also aware of its colonial connotations. That’s why I wanted to reimagine it in my own way. Within my work, I have been trying to create these objects that sit between these two cultures and do so in a kind of playful way. I’m not really referencing the trend, specifically, but I make work that takes loosely from parts of domestic Chinese design. So, I look in lots of different kind of furniture design books that have Chinese furniture design, and sort of moulded to my own aesthetics that have also been shaped and formed by my British upbringing. I think my approach is very much not to replicate a specific style or a specific piece. But to research lots of different things and imagery, and then explore how that comes out in my own work. So that’s sort of my approach to making.

That is part of my own process of exploring myself, my identity, what I’m interested in. It’s not so much a direct way like this sculpture mean this thing about myself or that. It’s more of like this type of work and this style of exploring these two cultures visually. And how that has enabled me in turn to learn more about myself, know more about being mixed.

Hannah Lim
The Forbidden Gates (2020)
Paint, plywood, jesmonite
Installation view at Georgia Stephenson PATIO-PROJECT: The Forbidden Gates (London)
Courtesy of the artist

 

How do you feel about your cultural identity now after years of making art exploring your heritage?

I think I’ve been exploring this kind of idea within my work for four years, maybe five years. It’s quite nice. I was initially quite resistant to explore the Chinese part of my heritage within my work, which was a part of me that I haven’t really had the chance to connect with. Because I’ve grown up in the UK and don’t go to Singapore, which is where my dad’s from, very often (my dad’s family would have originally been from FuJian – a province on the southeastern coast of China, but they all grew up in Singapore). In a way, I felt like I couldn’t make work about my Chinese side where I had not so much experience of it. And then I was like, “By making my work so that I can find a way of experiencing more of it.” I’ve also been thinking a lot more about mixed identities and what it means to be mixed, navigating between two cultures, and my understanding of that developed a lot. Also I’ve been able to connect with a lot of people that share the similar cultural identity to myself, which has been really great and exciting. Now, I think I have an understanding of what I’m interested in and what it is to make work about myself. And I’m become a lot more confident about talking my work and being more open to approach different things within my work.

What did you do during that period of time in Edinburgh when feeling you are bit “different”?

It’s been a combination of lots of things of discussion, reading and writing. It was often a thing of looking in words and writing about my own thoughts. Even exploring race theory and post colonialism theory as well that formed certain ideas and understandings that I had about myself and these two cultures that formed me. My whole dissertation was about why and how my work is connected to my heritage. Sara Ahmed has some interesting writing, this book called “On Being Included”, which is about racism and diversity in institutional life. She’s also mixed-race and she talks a lot of ideas that I have thought about myself. And I had a couple of friends in Edinburgh, who shared a similar heritage to myself, so I’d quite often have conversations with them. So kind of through that I did a lot of exploring.

Do you always have quite specific ideas about the work you are gonna make before create?

Sometimes, I have quite a specific idea of what object I want to create. And other times, it’s like a rough idea, then it evolves quite a lot once I get to the final thing. For example, sometimes it’s more like I’ll find a particular piece or image in a book that I’m really interested in to create some sort of shape that is based on this. Or I might find an object that’s really small, and I want to enlarge it within my own work. But it ends up not looking like the original image, it’s just loosely based on that. Some of the things are more kind of based on the function, like a table or a chair or a table like structure to hold some of the ceramic pieces. I quite like playing with that idea – looked like tables, but don’t function like the tables – this sort of perceived functionality that actually isn’t there. And others it’s more so based on a creature or a kind of motif as opposed to a functional object.

I really like some of your works they have their own arms and legs.

I’m quite interested in them having arms, feet and legs so that they’re not just ornaments or static objects, but they have a weird life of their own.

Hannah Lim
Xixi Fish Snuff Bottle (2021)
Polymer clay, unique
Courtesy of the artist

 

Have you ever been in a situation of lacking of inspiration?

I would say, I’m always quite inspired. I always have an idea of something I want to make but I just don’t have enough time. If I constantly making stuff then the more ideas I get, whereas if I stop then I lose the ideas and be unsure about what to make next.

Which piece is your favourite?

I definitely have “favourites” but I don’t think “a favourite” and it always changes. I’ll make something new and I’ll be like, “okay I think that that thing’s my favourite.” And there are other things that I get sick of and don’t like them anymore.

You are sort of nearing the end of your master’s study in Oxford, what’s your feelings about graduation?

This course of Oxford is really quick and short, like 10 months. I’m quite excited and I have things planned for the future. I’m going to be doing a residency for a year, which will be fun. And I’ll go back having a studio in London, which means I’m closer to the different shows that I’ll have on, and close to my family as they’re in London. But, I will miss having a workshop really close to me, because that is a massive benefit of being in the university, especially as someone who works in sculpture. That’s something that you will never ever have once you graduated, unless you become a huge artist, then you have all the machines yourself. So I’ll miss that when I graduate. Anyway, I’m excited about graduating, I think it’ll be fine.

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