Jason Lim’s performance art: From socio-political commentary to poetic meditation – interview

Singaporean artist Jason Lim talks about his artistic practice in light of his retrospective at Gajah Gallery.

Gajah Gallery in Singapore is holding a retrospective of Jason Lim’s performance art. Art Radar caught up with the artist to learn more about the origins of his practice, his attraction to ceramics and his exploration and development of performance art.

Jason Lim, 'Duet with Light', 2012, Beijing. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Duet with Light’, 2012, Beijing. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Tempus Fugit“, Jason Lim’s performance art retrospective, is on view at Singapore’s Gajah Gallery from 22 August until 5 September 2014. The exhibition, curated by artist and independent curator Daniela Beltrani, outlines Lim’s performance practice from its beginnings until the present day.

The show is divided into two sections:

  • ‘Timeline’, with a purely art historical, non-commercial approach presenting Lim’s practice from 1994 to the present, and
  • ‘Fine Art Photography’, featuring a selection of photographs as “unintentional, distilled and sublimated moments” from the artist’s latest, more mature performances.

In the catalogue essay entitled “The power of the image from performance to photography” (PDF download), Beltrani quotes Lim about performance art:

The strength of performance comes from the visual imagery it presents. It is a visual art form. In every performance, the artist is concerned with the image created. The body used in the imagery adds to the power of the artist’s presence. To me, I am creating three-dimensional images in my performances.

Art Radar spoke with Jason Lim about his approach to art, his attraction to the ceramic medium, his chance encounter with performance art and the inevitably rich development of his performance practice.

Jason Lim, 'Last Drop', 2010, Bern. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Last Drop’, 2010, Bern. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Approaching art as life

In the catalogue essay outlining the history of Lim’s performance art, Beltrani quotes the artist about what art is for him:

Art has to possess a spiritual value, something that opens certain states of consciousness, because we are losing ourselves too quickly.

How did you decide to be an artist? When did you know that you were going to be an artist and why? Was there any defining moment in your life that inspired you or made you want to express yourself through art?

I think when I was young, I knew that I am good with my hands and that I can do something with my hands, and I’m good working with materials. I’m talking about when I was around eleven or twelve years old. I felt that I could just use a pair of scissors and cut things up and make things up from there. Something like creating from materials that are two-dimensional, and then I was able to paste them up and make them into something that is a three-dimensional form. I enjoyed that kind of process and enjoyed the way that it was a very direct contact between hand and the material and what I think is directly transmitted or translated into the material that I am using.

So from then on, I thought that I had an interest to be on the creative side of things. But, of course, I wasn’t thinking straight away of becoming an artist. I was only aware that I was able to make things with my hands.

Did you start with ceramics or with performance first, or both at the same time?

With ceramics first. Actually, it was quite straightforward. When I was doing art as a subject in school, the classroom syllabus was really boring for me because every lesson seemed to be more [about] graphic design kind of projects. And I realised that I cannot be tidy, I cannot keep a white piece of paper clean…when you do design work it needs to be clean and tidy. One day, I came across the material of clay, which is muddy, soft, and there is a form to it. I became more curious. This other material was much more interesting for me.

So, apart from the tidiness aspect, what is the three-dimensional, more tangible element of the ceramic medium that drew you to it?

Clay is something that is worked directly with the hand. In the traditional way of making paintings, the hand is still separated from the canvas by the paintbrush. I’m also fascinated by clay being more alive, an organic and live material because it changes in the various stages of making. From the making part is always soft and organic, and when the form is finished it dries up, it hardens and it becomes a little bit more permanent, and the form is totally fixed after the firing and that will last for a very long time to come. The transformation was interesting for me.

When did you take up performance art?

After I finished my studies overseas [in London], I came back to Singapore. That was in 1992. I didn’t have the financial capability to start the studio to continue my ceramics practice, so I was trying to find different ways of expression, different art forms to make and continue my practice. I started making installation work because I felt that that kind of work was more site-specific and once the exhibition is finished, I don’t really get to keep the artwork per se and that saved me a lot of the problems with storage or studio space.

But after making some installation works, there was one chance to make an installation using clay as the material. In that particular artwork, I used three tons of clay and I started to make performance in that installation, in a way to activate the installation to the performance. After the performance, traces of my bodies were still present in the installation, and it gave it a sort of energy and something that’s left behind when the audience comes to visit: they know something has happened in that space. So from then on, I started doing a bit more performance work, and I realised that it can be a very direct medium, more direct then working with clay. The message that I put across can be received in a more immediate manner. So that’s how [my practice] evolved from doing ceramics to installation and on to making performance art.

You still do make ceramics, don’t you?

Yes, I do. It depends on the idea. If it is more suitable for that medium, I will still do it. I’ve done other work, like sound work and video work, but these days I am more focused on ceramics and performance. It just depends on the idea and concept – which is the better medium to use?

Do you still combine both media, like in your first installation/performance, to create performance works using ceramics?

Not so much these days, but I guess in the way I use clay these days, there is a performance element [to it], especially in a series of work that’s entitled Still/Life. They are works that are made in clay – they are not fired, they are put into a glass vitrine, and on the opening day of the event I introduce water into the glass tank and then the unfired clay would start to break down and dissolve. So there is a kind of movement or change in the clay work through my intervention in the beginning part. And there is this absence of me in the installation work with the clay. It’s all done by gravity and physics and time.

Jason Lim, 'Last Drop', 2011, Seoul. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Last Drop’, 2011, Seoul. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Exploring performance art

Apart from your installation performance you mentioned before, when did you hold your first actual performance and what was it?

I would say that it was something that was done as a commentary on how people judge somebody by their looks. It’s a performance titled Posing Threat and Threatening Pose. In the performance, I take different postures – for example, crossing my arm in front of my chest and saying the phrase “Threatening pose” and then at the same time I would do the same posture but the word is “Posing threat”. So it’s about the kind of reading, how somebody reads the way you pose yourself; even when smiling I would say “posing threat” but is that a kind of threatening pose? That was the time when I was more interested in playing with words and also those words that I articulate and the different postures that I take. That was in 1994 or 1995.

How did the ban on performance art in 1994 in Singapore affect your practice? How did you get around it to continue performing?

That’s interesting, because I was also teaching at an art school, and the space in the art school provided me with a kind of sanctuary to continue or to experiment with my practice. It was a kind of platform where I was able to do performance without having to go through the whole thing about licensing and so on. I would also say that the 1990s were more of a formative period for me, as a performance artist, so I was able to try out different things, try different ideas and different approaches to performance work. Some audiences are more interested in a certain type of work, some like more solo work where I try to put the message across to the audience to understand. So there were different ways for me to experiment.

In the 1990s, I wouldn’t say [the restriction] was really a big issue for me to continue my practice, because I had the school ground. But because of the ban on performance art, more performance artists got invited to go overseas to do their work. And so a lot of us would continue to practice performance art in the nineties and got somehow invited to perform outside [of the country]. So in a way not many people have seen our work [in Singapore] during the nineties until 2004 [when the ban was lifted], because we didn’t have that many opportunities to perform. Sometimes you do perform without announcing it; we just performed during exhibition openings or in smaller private groupings and situations.

I was particularly curious about one of your earlier series of works that you presented abroad during the ban period, Foreign Talents. Could you tell us more about the concepts and the development of this work? And how was it received by audiences internationally?

The Foreign Talents series started from the 1990s up to basically the whole ban period of performance art. What I was trying to do in that performance was also a kind of social commentary on the situation of Singapore where what is being done by foreigners in Singapore is accepted while what is done by locals has always been rejected or deemed to be less superior. That was basically the message that I was trying to put across. In that social situation in Singapore, a lot of things or decisions were made by – well, not a lot, but sometimes – decisions were made by foreigners who would take a higher position and would give instructions or orders. And not knowing the local cultural and social context too well, they can mess things up. They create a kind of chaos or a bad situation. So in the end, those who clean up this mess are the local people who have to resolve the situation.

It just so happens that during the ban period I travelled a lot for my performance work, so I became the foreign talent in other countries. My performance was always messing [things up], very messy, messing up the audience, and then in the end many things had to be dealt with or cleaned up by the local people or the organiser. So in a way, I was trying to parody what was happening in Singapore, overseas. There was a sort of organised chaos in the way I approached it and the way I did it, but also through the many kinds [versions] I have done, it has become a sort of set way of doing things.

Towards the end of 2004, I decided I had had enough of this piece of work and in the end, ironically, I did my last piece when I was in Singapore for the first time, after the many times I had done it overseas.

Jason Lim, 'Last Drop', 2011, Seoul. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Last Drop’, 2011, Seoul. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

A transitional period

What happened during your transitional period? How did that affect the following period of your performance practice?

After the Foreign Talents period was finished, there were things that I was doing, but I was also researching and refining the ideas. It was also when I was quite close to a few people who were making performances, and we were always getting together and discussing ideas. I decided to do a bit more collaborative work with these people. On the one hand, it was a trial of how to work with other people. On the other hand, I was trying to resolve a few other things that I had been thinking about as solo works. So in that transitional period, there were quite a few collaborative performances with other artists.

And among those collaborative works, is there a specific one that is particularly important to mention?

There were a few different collaborations and different ideas. There is one that I did with Vincent Leong. We weren’t called Jason Lim and Vincent Leong, we were called Party And Party; the acronym is PAP, which is the ruling party [People Action Party] in the government in Singapore. We dressed ourselves the same way these PAP members dressed up, in white short sleeved shirts and long white trousers and a black belt, and that’s how we appeared as a kind of a duo making performance.

One of these was when we were invited to do a performance for the opening of a gallery in a teaching institute at the National Education Institute, which is a place where they teach teachers. We arrived as if we were the guests of honour, like ministers, and we were standing at the back of a truck. The driver of the truck was, ironically, Joseph Ng, who had made the performance and therefore created the ten years ban on performance art. So there is this irony that Joseph Ng is driving these two ministers into an institution where teachers are being trained.

As we came off the truck, we were waving to people, smiling, shaking hands, and also throwing confetti on ourselves. It was a kind of egoistic portrayal of who we are and walking towards the gallery space, so that’s why we reached the door, the entrance to the gallery, and the performance finished, and we just disappeared. It’s like a big ‘woo haa!’, but actually nothing happens. That was quite memorable for me, because there is this irony of who drove us there and the parody we played on the political party.

Jason Lim, 'Duet with Light', 2012, Venice, Italy. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Duet with Light’, 2012, Venice, Italy. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Performance as meditation

In the catalogue, the curator quotes Lim for The 5th Asian Performance Art Series + Shinshu Summer Seminar 2000, answering the question “What is performance art for you?”:

…an immediate medium for me to provoke temporary changes in basic human behaviour and consciousness. This provocation intends to open long closed windows and forgotten doors hidden at the back of our head. The immediacy and direct approach of the performance medium allows audience and artist to communicate, respond, exchange in all positive and negative ways.

Daniela [the curator] calls your last period of performance, which is the current one, the meditative phase. How can you explain that? Why is it meditative, with respect to the previous periods? Could you explain a bit about your Duet and Last Drop Series and the ideas behind them?

Just before this period [the meditative phase], there was a stretch of time where I was working on a series of work called Last Drop. After Foreign Talents, there was this transitional period, and then I went into this Last Drop series of performances. In the Last Drop performance, I have used various materials like glasses, water, candles, and almost similar [to] the Foreign Talents. After a while, I wanted to stop making this Last Drop performance. So the meditative period, which is kind of like the last four or five years of works I’ve been doing, is to extract certain materials from the Last Drop performances. Meaning… I had used, for example, candles before in the Last Drop, so in these meditative performances, which I now title under Duet, I will just make longer, durational performances with just one material. And it’s usually durational for at least two hours, [it] will be [about] a given time and how I use a space and how I use the material in that particular time.

So in this Duet series of works, I use candles as one kind of material. And I’ve used threads, paper as another selected material, and working on my conversation or relationship with that particular material that I choose. It’s really giving myself the time to explore this material that I have. In different spaces and on different occasions I will select the material that is appropriate for that particular space. And through doing that kind of durational works, I try to create a certain kind of image that, when audiences look at this particular image, they can form a certain kind of meaning for themselves. So I might have an idea, an image in my head, but in the performance it’s like, “How do I arrive at this particular image that I have in my head?” and it’s in that period that I have to experiment or explore the material to arrive at that image.

But of course, sometimes it doesn’t really work, because there is the so-called ‘failure’, or problems during the performance. But those [problems] for me are not exactly a kind of failure per se, but [rather] it [failure] gives an opportunity for a sort of variation for the performance to happen. It would be boring if I knew how to use the material every time to arrive at the same [image/outcome], at that certain thing that I wanted, it would become so scripted and for me, when it is too scripted or rehearsed, it’s no longer a performance.

So sometimes, when there is a problem that happens or an accident that happens, to me that is a real trigger for a real performance to happen, because I will be able to respond to it, and improvise in that kind of situation.

Jason Lim, 'Duet with Thread', 2010, Singapore. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Duet with Thread’, 2010, Singapore. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Body, action and materials

Would you say that the use of materials and what the materials signify in your performances has changed over time ? It seems like it is more important now that it used to be in your earlier performance work.

Yes, the materials that I use in my works, they might look generic or very common, but it’s also how [and] what this material can be represented/ing or what the image that I create represents as well. So for example, maybe you have seen some pictures of those candles that I use to put on my fingers. In some of the performances there are lots of candles on each of the fingers, and they almost look like a kind of candelabra. For some people, it looks almost like a kind of meditation that you do when you are looking into a flame, as a one kind of a performance. And also by me moving in a dark space with these candles, it illuminates something in that space. When I do the performance with the candle, I tend to choose a period of time of the day when there is a transitional period from daytime to night time. So it’s really about the lighting, about the lights in my hands, the light in that space and also of the day.

The candle is a measurement of time, and when the daytime changes into twilight and then night time, there is a sense of changing time of day as well, so there is a connection between time very strongly linked to the candle. Previously, I only used birthday cake candles, and it has a certain kind of meaning if I use that kind of birthday cake candle. But these days I am using candles that are more for Buddhist rituals, they are those small yellow candles, which I feel have a kind of symbol, a reduced symbolism to it. Because there is also this aesthetic I am looking towards, or working towards, which is a bit more of a minimalistic kind of aesthetic.

Then in the other series, for example, I’m using thread. I’ve used black thread, red, white, and green, it’s also depending on the space. Usually the thread pieces are done outdoors, so the colour of the thread provides a kind of contrast to the space I am working in. Plus the performance is about unspooling that ball of thread and usually this ball of thread I have, I realised that it takes me about two hours to unspool everything. At the end, for example, a red ball of thread by the time after two hours I’ve unspooled everything it becomes a red patch on the ground. From afar it looks almost like red paint or something like that. The colour brings attention or a kind of focus for the audience to focus on, to see myself next to this red patch of colour and framing the image that I create with the surrounding and, from there, they create a certain kind of imagery of meaning that we choose to see.

Usually the threads, after unspooling, somehow kind of weave themselves together, and I am able to pick them up almost like a piece of fabric. So at the end of the performance, I usually take this unspooled threads and put them in my hand, almost like fabric, and then I put them over my head. For me, personally, when I am unspooling the thread, there is this expense of energy onto the thread. After the performance, I collect all this energy and put it back onto my head. But of course, I know that when I put the thread over my head, I become also anonymous, the material becomes part of my body, and what the audience sees is this human figure with a shade of colour red, green or black on my head. I become in a way, anonymous because people can’t see my face anymore. So there is more just like this figure, a body in a particular space at a particular time.

Would you say that the materials and your body and actions in your performances hold a balanced equation, a balanced importance? Are they on the same level?

I think what upsets these three things that you mention is the psychological state. It depends on how I am mentally. If I am happy or feeling more calm or that certain state of mind, it seems like the work will be more stable or the action portrays that state of mind. Maybe if I have something that’s worrying me for a long time, perhaps that comes out in that performance. For example, last year I did a performance and before the performance day I had three days in the city of Vancouver. I was living in this hotel where in the main street just outside the hotel I saw many shocking things that I have never seen before in Singapore. The whole street was just full of drug addicts, prostitutes, people prostituting themselves to get money to buy drugs, people on wheelchairs who lost their legs because of drugs, you know, it’s all this … such a hard situation, so hard that when it comes to the day of making this performance with the candle, in my state of mind, I wanted to make a piece of work that is paying a tribute to these people or talking about these people in the street.

So that performance was supposed to be a long one-hour piece, but in the end I was telling the organiser I can’t make such a long piece, because I can’t handle this performance with all these images of these street people in my head the whole time. So the performance was shorter, like half an hour, but in that half an hour I was so tense, so many emotional things going through my head about these people that in the end, I started crying, in the last part of my performance tears just started to come out. I couldn’t control it, because I was almost meditating or doing a very slow kind of movement, with just one single candle on my finger and so many things in my head because of this space that I’ve seen. It depends on the country that I go to, different environment, it’s not a standardised kind of reaction or outcome that I also expect from myself.

So these latest works are more concentrated on your personal or inner feelings and energy, rather than society or political criticism or commentary?

Yes, that is why Daniela kind of labelled or categorised them as more meditative.

Well, it’s in constant mutation…

Yes, I think the interesting thing to me about making works in a series, even though it might just look like it’s a repetition of one idea, is that each time I do something I learn something new.

Jason Lim, 'Duet with Light', 2012, Venice. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Duet with Light’, 2012, Venice. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

The outsider’s perception

What do you expect of the audience when seeing your performances? 

It’s difficult to say. I mean, the reason why I stopped making performances that have social or political commentary is because no matter what I do, people still have to ask me “what do you mean?” So from that kind of performance, I realised that whatever message I was telling the audience, it didn’t get across. I stopped complaining in that sense about using art to make commentary about society, but using this performance art more to review my own state of mind, and when the audience see something that they can recognise in these later works, it’s good because then they get something out of what I was making. But I am not worried if they don’t see it exactly the way I want them to look at it. Because I guess it is the same with a painting, someone paints an apple and people still see it as an orange, you cannot control it!

I think I believe in every individual; the way they form meaning for an artwork depends on that individual’s life experience, and they relate to what they see and try to understand.

Regarding photography and performance… performance is ephemeral, it’s there at a particular time and space and then it’s gone, while photography documents it and remains. How important is the photographic documentation of your work? Is the aesthetic as well as the technical aspect of photography important to you?

Usually, I do not give instructions. In fact, I’ve never given instructions to anybody on how to document my performances. Documentation is documentation, when you look at that documentation it is not viewing the performance. That for me is very clear. Even looking at a video documentation, it’s still not the performance. It’s an image that is portraying a performance because that one photo is less than one second of a much longer thing.

Sometimes, when I finish the performance, one or two days later, sometimes a week later, I start to receive [photos] from people who have been there taking pictures. And some pictures tend to look better in a sense, due to where the photographer is standing, how they frame the picture with their own mind, with their own experience, with what they actually choose to see in a performance. In this exhibition, the pictures that were selected are from the documentation. I’m interested in making performance just for photos, not for a performance – it could be another area that I can explore in the future.

So you don’t have a professional photographer who has the job of documenting your performances?

No, I don’t have a professional photographer, but I do have a very good one who knows me well enough to know how to take good pictures – and that’s Daniela [the curator]. She has a good eye, and she is also a performance artist, so she knows what she’s looking at. It’s from her point of view, of course. And when we make a selection from the pictures, we do commonly agree if that’s the right picture to show or what to select.

Jason Lim, 'Duet with Light', 2012, Venice. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

Jason Lim, ‘Duet with Light’, 2012, Venice. Image courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery.

An evolving practice

Do you have any future projects in store that you’d like to share with us?

Recently, Daniela and I have been exploring a kind of duo performance and we have been invited so far to do performances for two different events, so we are looking forward to that. One is actually more of a video piece, where the documentation becomes the artwork, and we are working on a kind of time lapse video where we are basically looking at each other but we don’t move. It’s more like everything in the background and the foreground is moving, so when we do the fast forward we are still and things around us are moving. And that’s something that we are looking forward to doing.

Another project that I will be doing with her is in November 2014, when we are invited to do a one-week residency in Patagonia… That’s at the end of the world! We don’t have any plans on what we will be doing, but we want to be inspired by the space there, and then we decide on how we can collaborate on something.

I am always fascinated by artist duos; sometimes I feel like they always bring so much more, emotionally, an even more complete perspective somehow.

Yes, I guess there is a sense of synergy between two persons, because they are connected in a way – maybe two persons give off a bigger aura than one person. They provide a stronger presence. Things can just be communicated without speaking, sometimes just being there [is enough].

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Singaporean artists, art events in Singapore, performance art, interviews, ceramics, gallery shows

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more interview with performance artists from Asia