When in Rome...

By Ooi Kok Chuen

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An artist who creates his work, not caring about its commercial value; one who thinks that the message is the thing, not the value that others attach to it. His creations, he thinks, are the possession of the community and the audience that participate in the creative process. This is H.H. Lim, a unique Penang artist based in Rome.

H.H. Lim certainly looked pensive when I met him briefly in Kuala Lumpur and again a week later at his contemporary art space, Izu Zone, in Penang. He talked about his life as an artist, from his struggling days in Rome where he has been based for the last three decades. He is now an artist highly visible in Europe and in more recent years, back in Asia.

“When I left to study in Rome in 1976 (at the Academy of Fine Arts), I told my family it was to study Architecture but I quickly switched to Fine Arts. Until his dying day, my father never knew that I earned a living as an artist,” Lim, 57, confided. It didn’t help that he is not the more typical artist doing paintings but is one involved in neo-conceptual/performance Project Art, touching on urban societal changes, modes of communication (exploring the paradox of visual and textual language), time continuum and the ironies and conflicts of modern life.

Born in Alor Star, Lim grew up in Penang to which his family moved. “Although an artist can be anywhere, I have built in Rome for more than 30 years. I am inspired by its energy,” he said.

Why Rome, when it was the vogue for most Malaysian artists then to head to the art citadels in Paris, London or New York (except Ho Khay Beng and Aza Osman)? “Why not? It’s the land of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Bernini!” True, after all, the whole of Italy is an open museum redolent with the history of art and architecture.

Despite the accolades and recognition for his art projects all over Europe, the US and Asia, his success came at a high price, including a split from his Taiwan-based wife. It is not easy to sustain his kind of art, which depends a lot on sponsorship and sometimes even a heavy outlay because of engineering logistics, like for the big-budget Gone With The Wind exhibition he held at the reputable Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing’s 798 art district in 2010.

Lim must wish his father could see him now.

He has become a fixture in world contemporary art practices, and his works are collected by the National Modern Art Museum (GNAM) of Italy and the Rome Municipal Fine Art Museum. The latest good news is that he’s been invited to show in the Cuba country-pavilion in the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale, which starts on June 1 and ends on November 24.

In the Gone With The Wind exhibition, he mounted an installation of 30 ceiling fans, symbolic of the intimidating whirring of the helicopter blades and the aerial perspective, like in Coppola’s film classic, Apocalypse Now. A car, a grand piano, a washing machine and a sofa were stood on high pedestals in a display of the high consumption of modern life.

His Il Toscoro Nascosto (Hidden Treasures) of large tiger murals with chains and a suitcase chained and padlocked inside a large cage engaged and tested visitors at different sites – the GNAM, the Tang Contemporary Art in Bangkok (2011) and looking incongruous in the snooty interiors of the Westin Excelsior in Rome (2012).

Have we become caged animals in a modern civilised society, building security walls around us? He said: “This is what we are. This is how we live – with keys and locks and cages.”

He said that Man will always be looking for treasures, or what presumably pass off as that, and for a better life, for greener pastures.

His other notable exhibitions included the Speechless exhibition in Taipei (2002); the ConcentrAzione chess-play performance with China’s Yang Jiechang in Milan (2011); Patience in Salerno (2002) and Sete (2007) in Italy; the Words Project in Milan (Italy) and Guangdong (China) in 2006, and Daily Music (2012), where he drummed up some tunes with the blare and glare of news emanating from a flat-screen TV in a Neo-Dada/Fluxus tribute to John Cage (National Centre of Contemporary Arts, Russia).

Lim's Il Toscoro Nascosto.

His Patience performance drew parallels from the Chinese homily of the strategist Taigong, noted for catching nothing with a suspended hook line. Like a take from Andy Warhol’s insipid Empire (1964), which was an eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building, a video of an outdoor riverside scene is projected on the wall of the museum simulating passing time while he sat “fishing” in front of a large aquarium with only a carp swimming inside.

Lim had also taken part in the Turkey Emergency Biennial in Istanbul and an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute in the US.

He started returning more to Malaysia after the great Datuk Ibrahim Hussein invited him to take part in the first Langkawi International Arts Festival (Lifa) in 2000, organised in conjunction with the launch of the Ibrahim Hussein Museum and Cultural Foundation.

Lim sees the artist’s role as a witness cum messenger relaying a message and also performing it out, “sharing ideas, uncertainties and enthusiasm.”

“Artists are missionaries, and we are the testimony of what is happening in our time. The sharing of ideas is like a calling, a mission,” he said.

His art becomes like a diary, where codas of traditional values are pitted against symbols of technology. He is mystified why and how the universal sign language “which is elegant and transcends borders and linguistics” and “which can be told in perpetuity” is not heartily embraced by all in a world broken into ethnic ghettoes. “Computers have revolutionised our way to communicate at a non-temporal speed,” he said.

“Art creates euphoria and stimulates participation. But art is not fashion.” He takes a cynical view of the material world – what he describes as “a concept explored through a magnifying glass focusing on the speed of (excessive) consumption (of objects, images and words) and our physical and mental dependence on it.”

His media are the banal objects of everyday use, which are sometimes recycled, repackaged and framed in a different context or forms, and can take a second life, a new reality as a piece of art.

In a twist to Marshall McLuhan’s dictum of “the medium is the message,” Lim goes for the idea. “For me, the most beautiful treasure is the birth of an idea,” he said, alluding indirectly perhaps to his work, Hidden Treasure, and to perceptions of what an individual values most, which can vary dramatically.

“The message is the thing, not the underlying or possible monetary value attached to it by others,” he intoned.

His performance although defined by parameters is really unscripted, like a game of chess involving strategy and subterfuges like in his performance art, ConcentrAzione.

Another hallmark of his art is the interactive element. “I need a public, an audience, to enliven the artwork. Visitors animate the artwork or dead spaces,” he said.

There is the unresolved question of the lifespan of his conceptual works, which could be ephemeral and specific to actor (performer), time and place.

“The work doesn’t belong to me. The ‘possession’ is with the community, the communal and sharing aspects with all the energy that went into it. If it (the idea and the physical trappings) is sold, then there is someone to protect it.

“But how to sell, whether it can sell or not, that’s not my concern. My job is to do ‘painting.’ An artist paints his time, others are just speculation.”

Lim does paint, making mixed media, 20 of which have been sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions in Milan, Italy, among them Poco Dopo Le cinque Del Pomeriggio for Euro 16,026 and Piove Non Piove for Euro10,000. His mixed media include enamel, graphite, pencil, gesso, metal, aluminium, relief in chalk, resin and plaster.

Lim’s Venice Biennale work, C'est la Vie, to be shown at the Museo Archeological Nazionale de Venezia, is of a pot of cactus enclosed in a cage, representing a search for extreme freedom. Until Lim, Malaysian artists’ participation in the Venice Biennale were indirect and not in country pavilions – Datuk Ibrahim Hussein (1970), Zulkifli Yusoff (1997) and Wong Hoy Cheong (2003). The 2013 biennale is helmed by Massimiliano Gioni.

Ooi Kok Chuen