The London born and based artist, Hannah Lim, embarks on a self-discovery project to reconnect with her Chinese-Singaporean heritage. Identifying crossovers between Western Medieval and Chinese bestiaries, Hannah gives life to these ancient traditional representations through her illustrations.
Coming across the orientalising 18th-century pottery style known as Chinoiserie, Lim re-appropriates and re-contextualises this colonial art, crafting three dimensional objects like her signature snuff boxes. In this way, Hannah Lim reveals to be an author of art with purpose: she learns about history and culture for designing her works and, thus, shares her knowledge with who attends her exhibitions and sees her rich in colour and meaningful pieces.
Your solo show Bestiaries at the Wilder Gallery ended a few weeks ago. First of all, congratulations on this exhibition! This show seems very representative of you and your art. It was in London, and you are based in this cosmopolitan artistic city. How does London’s creative scenario influence your work?
Thank you, it was a really enjoyable show to work on. I focused mainly on creating smaller more intricate works for the show at Wilder Gallery, centred on my research into Chinese mythology and it was great to be able to show this work in London - my home city.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in London and so I think it has inevitably had a strong influence on my work. I grew up in Hounslow, West London, a part of London that’s very culturally diverse. I think this in particular has had a strong influence on my interest in exploring my own cultural heritage.
Then, of course, the title introduces us and your public to the heart of your art. Indeed the beasts of your show are mainly inspired by the illustrations within Chinese bestiaries. Can you tell us why you chose this subject and what it means to you?
I first became quite interested in Chinese mythology a couple of years ago, partially because I had very little experience or understanding of it. I started looking into a series of Classical Chinese texts and became captivated by this Chinese bestiary titled The Classics of Mountains and Seas. I was intrigued by the descriptions and illustrations of each of the creatures I came across within the book, these creatures were often similar to ones I found in Medieval Bestiaries. I found this crossover fascinating and wanted to explore it within my work.
We talked about the influence of Chinese art in this particular show, but there is much more of it in your art as you are of Singaporean heritage. What does it mean to you to propose and present this culture and its craft to a Western audience and what do you wish it will learn from and appreciate of it?
I’ve always been interested in learning more about my Chinese-Singaporean heritage through my work, this part of my practice is not only educational for those that see my work exhibited but it’s also an important cultural learning process for me. Whilst the work I make is informed by my research that has strong connections to my cultural identity, much of my process is about learning and sharing. Having grown up in the UK I have sometimes felt like an outsider to my Chinese-Singaporean heritage so for me it’s important that my work reflects the fact that I too am learning, researching and trying to form my own understandings of Chinese art and design in my practice.
Your body of work is rich and varied. There are furniture-like structures that are ornamental but also functional, watercolour and oil and acrylic paintings on paper and on wood, and several smaller pieces like snuff bottles. How did you start developing your own style and how did you end up keeping such a wide repertoire?
I became really interested in Chinoiserie, an 18th century design style, through which many traditional Chinese designs were imitated and adapted by European designers. Whilst I was aware of the colonial history of this design style, I was captivated by its exuberant, colourful and creaturely aesthetic. I wanted to reimagine the idea of Chinoiserie in a new, more appropriate way, using this reinterpretation as a way also to learn more about my own heritage. This research was the basis for much of my sculptural work. Overtime as my research became more expansive I started developing new ways of exploring these interests through new media. This included starting to produce my Snuff Bottles and more recently expanding my practice into painting.
Is there a form of expression you are more comfortable with or are they all equally important to you? Can you walk us through your artistic process?
I studied sculpture so I think working three-dimensionally is my preference. If I'm making something large scale there is usually a lot more planning, designing and material consideration that goes into the work, many of my large sculptures are made through laser cutting and slotting together segments of wood so it’s important that this process is quite accurate. On the other hand my snuff bottle works and paintings are made in a more intuitive way.
When approaching your art, one immediately notices your use of colour. It is vibrant and bold. Is this rooted in the inspiration you take from Chinese aesthetics or is it a personal artistic choice and trait?
Sometimes my use of colour is very purposeful and symbolic, referencing particular cultural beliefs or customs. At other times my use of colour has been very intuitive. I’ve always been interested in using colour in a very unrestricted way, I think the vibrance of the work is joyful and playful and it entices people into reading further into the cultural context of the work.
Your art practice is mainly three dimensional, sculptures and installations. However, you’ve recently been commissioned by Ellipsis to create a new print edition that is on show this December at the Shoreditch Arts Club. How did this project come about?
I met Kate, who runs Ellipsis, through another project she was curating and was subsequently invited to take part in the print commission. Ellipsis commissions women and non-binary artists to make new work, in this case a new edition of Risograph prints. Ellipsis supports artists’ practices through funding training and printmaking, making sales and showing artworks in exhibitions and collections.
I based my print on one of my newer snuff bottles - The Ghost Orchid Snuff Bottle. My photograph of the piece is collaged against a colourful, stippled, ornate background, inspired by the shapes and technical drawings used to produce my larger sculptures. The design for the final print was made in illustrator, the same programme I use to design many of my larger works. It’s been nice to adapt some of the sculptural techniques and processes already present in my practice to produce this print which feels very representative of lots of different aspects of my work!
Is it weird for you to see prints of your three-dimensional work? How different (nor not) do you think people will perceive your art practice?
I’ve always been interested in experimenting with how I document my sculptures, creating an interesting and visually satisfying composition that still allows a viewer to enjoy the sculpture through a two dimensional image. I think the print commission has provided a really special opportunity for people that enjoy my practice to have a part in supporting my sculptural work at a more affordable price.
You had solo shows and exhibitions in various parts of the world. We talked about the last one held in London, but just over this year you have been to Canada and Greece too. Is there a place which you felt particularly fit your art’s core message or that inspire you the most?
I love exhibiting in London as it’s where I grew up and it’s had a strong, lasting influence on my work. However I also really enjoy showing in other countries and exploring how different cultures can have an influence on my work. The show in Greece, with KIRKI, was on a little island called Tinos. The works created for the show were inspired largely by the mythology and religious history of the island. The theme of the show and it’s relation to the island was very special and further tied into the themes of mythology and enchantment that were already present in my practice.
In Quebec, you participated in a group exhibition at the Duran Mashaal Gallery which focused on the artists’ ties to their Asian heritage and its effects on their practice. What was it like to take part in such a project on an artistic and a personal level?
It’s always very special to exhibit with other artists who share a similar cultural background to yourself. I loved learning about the other artists and how their choice of materials, techniques and research were tied to their individual cultural experiences.
One of your characteristic snuff bottles, Qilin and Seraph, is inspired by Leonora Carrington’s Eluhim. Is there any other artist you look up to or take inspiration from?
There are many many artists whose work I admire, I’m particularly interested in Tai Shani’s work.
I assisted Tai back in 2019 whilst I was still doing my undergraduate degree, I became particularly drawn to her work after seeing one of her installations and performances at Glasgow International back in 2018.
I think my experience of Tai’s work has informed how I approach installation within my practice. I’ve come to see my sculptures and paintings not just as stand alone works but rather interconnected pieces, fitting together to form a broader narrative and composition.
Your 2023 has obviously been busy and successful. Are you working on any future project that we will see in 2024 and, if so, can you tell us something about it?
Over the last year and a half I’ve been an artist in residence with Pangolin London, a gallery specialising in sculpture based near Kings Cross and Pangolin Editions, one of the biggest foundries in Europe. Through this I’ve been creating a series of new works, primarily sculptural works that are cast in bronze at the foundry. These works will be exhibited as part of a solo show I’ll be having at the gallery next year!
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