Space, Rhythm & Light

In 1977, Singaporean-British sculptor Kim Lim (1936-1977) was the only female exhibitor at the Hayward Gallery Annual. She was also the only artist from the Global majority. The following year, Lim joined the all-women committee for the 1978 Hayward Annual alongside figures such as Tess Jaray, Liliane Lijn, Gillian Wise Ciobotaru and Rita Donagh. Despite her successful career, however, Lim remains overlooked in the history of 20th century art, particularly compared to male contemporaries such as Henry Moore. The Hepworth Wakefield seeks to correct this, following on from a retrospective at Tate Britain in 2020. Space, Rhythm & Light is the most comprehensive exhibition of Lim’s work to date, bringing together four decades of the sculptor’s practice, displaying over 100 artworks alongside rarely seen photographs and prints.

The show draws inspiration from Lim’s treatment of space. In 1968, within her personal archive, she wrote, “What I am after is the activation of the spaces between, so that the space is the tension between forms.” To demonstrate this are a selection of the artist’s earlier pieces, composed whilst studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Here, space works as an element that can be moulded and stretched – a force that can pull and push figures apart as in the sculpture Kiss (1959). The work pays homage to a sculpture by Romanian Modernist Constantin Brâncuși that depicts two lovers embracing. In Brâncuși’s version, the figures are as close as physically possible, intimately entangled as their arms fiercely wrap around the other. Lim, however, rather than using one block of stone uses two. Both heads are alternately shaped, sized and remarkably separate. Rather than one soul shared between two bodies, the work points to two different figures that meet, if only for a moment, at a thin sliver of stone.

This treatment of form continues in a display that shows recognisable works such as Pegasus (1962), a rounded bronze sculpture stood upright and Candy (1965), an orange wooden form that rests on its side, positioned as if to resemble a helicopter seed. At play is an experimentation with crescent forms as Lim tests the boundaries of iconography – moving from the winged-horse of Greek mythology to the three-pronged star constellation. There is sense of Lim as a conductor, moving between concave and shapes, as patterns and structures recur, in Joleen Loh’s words, like “variants or memories of each other.”

A highlight of the exhibition is its focus on Lim’s material approach to sculpture and printmaking, focusing on her increasingly abstract and experimental forms towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Positioned in the Hepworth Garden is Day (1966), acquired by the collection in 1983. The painted-steel arch, originally commissioned by Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, acts as a sun dial, casting shadows across surrounding foliage to gauge the time of day. Inside, Intervals (1972), a screen print of the same title as Lim’s modular wooden series, explores the possibility of overlay and texture through paper. Printed in white and turquoise ink, broad, slat-like forms intersect at multiple angles on sheets of acrylic. Discs (1972), meanwhile, comprises of eight circular aquatints in blue, green, red and yellow. Suspended from the ceiling, the bright hues spin freely, resembling a chandelier made out of two dimensional planets. They hover over Trengannu II (1968) a fibreglass piece in four works. The sculpture is named after the Malaysian state that Lim spent time in as a child, echoing the area’s coastal landscapes with an undulating, wave-like design.

Hepworth pays close attention to the impact of travel on Lim’s practice, what the artist termed her ‘”main art education.” Speaking about Trengannu II, Lim describes the sublime beauty of watching sea turtles lay eggs on the beach, observing the animals’ “ever-winding circles” produced as a result of their nests. On display are photographs that document trips to Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Italy, Japan and Turkey. Ancient sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Mangao Caves in Dunhuang were continued sources of inspiration. The instinct is to associate Lim with expatriatism, rooting her according to her Singaporean background and time spent in Southeast Asia. Yet this was something that Lim objected to – in 1988 the artist decided not to participate in Rasheed Araeen’s seminal exhibition The Other Story:Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain at the Hayward. She explained in a letter to the curator that she did not want to “other herself.” She wrote, “What was important in the end was what I did, not where I came from. Race and gender were “givens I work from – perhaps the work does reflect this – but I did not want to make them an issue.” Lim demonstrated a resistance to biographical interpretation, erring against being pigeonholed according to nationality. As curators Joleen Loh and Adele Tan at National Gallery Singapore argue, the art historical engagement we need to make today with Lim’s work must pay attention to social and historical context. It must infer “diverse interpretations,” considering the multiplicity and visibility of her legacy.”

What resounds in Space, Rhythm & Light is Lim as an individual sculptor. Littered throughout the exhibition are portraits of the artist in her studio. In one image, taken by photographer Grace Lau, Lim poses in mid-composition alongside her stone sculptures in her garden in Camden. Other pictures depict her next to Chess Piece I (1960) or engrossed in Twice (1966), cloth in one hand, a lit cigarette in another. We’re reminded she is a figure with total command over the work, constructing without assistants, carving, meticulously by hand. There is a sense of the artist occupying a space that is just as physical as their sculpture. It’s reminiscent of the words of Wakefield’s namesake, Barbara Hepworth, “You can’t make a sculpture, without involving your body. You move and you feel and you breathe and you touch.”

Space, Rhythm & Light | Until 2 June 2024

Words: Chloe Elliott

Image Credits:

1. Kim Lim working on Twice, 1968. © Estate of Kim Lim / Turnbull Studio. All Rights Reserved, DACS. Photo:Jorge Lewinski. © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. All Rights Reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images

2. Kim Lim, Day, 1966. © Estate of KimLim / Turnbull Studio. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023. TheHepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection). Photo: Nick Singleton

3. Kim Lim, with Chess Piece I, c.1960. © Estate of Kim Lim / Turnbull Studio. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023. Photograph courtesy The Estate of Kim Lim