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Justin’s Variations by Low Sze Wee

When writing about Justin Lim’s latest body of works, it is tempting to read them as part of a linear sequence, charting his artistic developments from abstraction to figuration. His first solo exhibition Momentum, featured abstract paintings composed of a multitude of drips, splashes and frenzied lines of acrylic paint. With the content of the canvasses containing no obvious references to external reality, the titles of the show and a number of the works[2], encouraged a reading which related painting to the intangible qualities of music. This, in itself, is not surprising, given Justin’s background as an accomplished musician as well as his personal interest in examining the links between music and painting.[3] Kelvin Tan, in his essay for the said exhibition catalogue, made similar observations.[4] He commented that Justin’s use of colours, which reminded him of ‘polyphonic rhythms and sounds’ was the artist’s attempt to break and transcend forms.  

In his second solo exhibition Agents, Actions and Consequences, there were elements of ‘content’ or ‘message’, not found in his earlier works. This was evident from the inclusion of an assortment of subjects such as fishes, geometrical forms, nude torsos and parachutes against a backdrop of ‘stains, coloured surfaces and brushstrokes’. In the catalogue essay, Milenko Prvacki commented that through ‘manipulation of reality, history and fiction’, Justin ‘tells us a story not only about abstract tones and spatial pursuits but also of narration compositions’. Prvacki noted that Justin’s new works, nevertheless, continued with explorations of repetitions and the tensions between form and formlessness, thereby creating what he called a ‘postmodernist cocktail’ where ‘the line between reality and fiction is slowing blurring and so are the virtual and real world’.[5] 

For his third and latest exhibition, Justin’s figures have literally come to the fore. In fact, they loom large on the canvasses. The interest in figuration was not a recent or sudden one. Justin felt that his formal training in figuration could be traced to the time when he was studying visual and digital arts in Malaysia from 2001 to 2003.[6] This was later somewhat overshadowed by his interest in abstraction when he subsequently pursued his fine arts degree in Singapore from 2006 to 2006. When he returned to Malaysia in 2007, he was caught up by what was happening around him, especially the political and social events of the time such as murder scandals[7], the 50th Merdeka Celebrations[8], the HINDRAF controversy[9] and the 12th Malaysian General Elections. The latter proved to be particularly momentous as popular dissatisfaction led to the loss of the ruling party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority as well as five states to the opposition. Justin recalled the almost ‘festive’ air during the election period when his neighbourhood was festooned with posters and banners, and the gripping political drama was the topic of constant conversation.

This was also a period when Justin was asking some difficult questions of himself and his relationships with others. Related to these were issues like the role of religion, the influence of social structures and conditioning, and the relationship between power and truth. How much autonomy do we really have in life?  And how do we relate to and perceive the people around us? This then led Justin to reflect on the political and social changes occurring in his midst. What is the relationship between power and politics, race and religion? How does the mass media influence public perception? How much should we believe of what we read? Can we really trust what we see? And how does one make sense of this paradoxical, topsy-turvey world that we live in?

Questions like these are explored through the use of figuration in Justin’s latest works. In the case of the largest painting Gods, Heroes and Myths, the figures press upon the viewer, popping to life from a pristine flat white background. Whilst some figures were derived from found images in the mass media, others were based on friends who posed for the artist. Using the parade of characters, Justin highlights a number of ambivalences and paradoxes. Sumo and American wrestlers are a source of entertainment but are also treated as heroes by many in their home countries. So, how seriously should they be taken? Two other figures strike dance-like poses with eyes half-closed. Are they dancing or going into some sort of trance – one is never quite sure. There is a man sporting a Mohawk hairstyle and punk clothing. As an icon of anti-establishment counterculture, he takes silent aim at the central figure in the picture. A butcher, with knife in hand, who stands amidst hanging carcasses, looks at the viewer quizzically.  He wears a white rounded cap, usually associated with the taqiyah worn by Muslim men. How do we regard this enigmatic character? In an age when terrorism-driven fears have exacerbated irrational exaggerations and stereotyping, where is the place for truth and tolerance?

In the work Animal Farm, Justin takes inspiration from the book by George Orwell, a cautionary tale about power and corruption. Featuring a line-up of animal carcasses stripped of all marks of identity, the painting seems to be reminding us that regardless of our desires, convictions and achievements, this is the ultimate destiny for everyone – to become mere remnants of anonymous flesh, nothing more, nothing less.

Justin has also used the theme of Malay ghosts as a platform to explore certain local issues, particularly the notorious murder of a Mongolian woman. The scandal with its lurid headlines of a gruesome murder using explosives, allegations over a shady purchase of submarines, and the involvement of the police and prominent political individuals, had transfixed the public for much of late 2006 and 2007. In addition, the turmoil on the international front, ranging from Gulf War to the oil crisis, provided much food for thought. The use of ghosts as a metaphor is an interesting one. Ghosts are said to haunt the living, just as the excesses of Malaysian politics continue to make their presence felt throughout the past 50 years.[10] Ghosts are also sometimes regarded as the repositories of our irrational fears and suspicions. One characteristic of Malaysian politics has been the periodic resurrection of the so-called ‘bogeyman’. Referring to a terrifying spectre used as a threat to misbehaving children, politicians often resort to racial issues to incite popular unease or unrest within a particular ethnic community, thereby manipulating them to behave in ways which have not been helpful in fostering greater trust and understanding within a plural society like Malaysia.[11] Hence, Justin has, though his canvasses, created a disturbing world where ghosts such as the Toyol (slave ghost used for stealing money), Hantu Air (water ghost), Hantu Tetek (breast ghost) and Orang Minyak (oil man) collide with the submarines, warplanes, suited businessmen, petroleum kiosks and hand grenades from our world. The atmosphere evoked in these works is certainly nightmarish and unreal, but is it any worse than the times which we live in?

In reviewing his artistic production over the last few years, Justin had sought to explain his move from abstraction to figuration as a change in focus. In his earlier works, he was ‘looking inwards’ whereas in his later works, he was ‘looking outwards’ at the external events happening around him.[12] Whilst this may lead us to draw the conclusion that the artist has somehow ‘changed’ or that there is no discernible link between his earlier and latest works, I would prefer to see it somewhat differently. Justin is an artist who has always been curious to question and investigate the world around him. As his personal circumstances changed, so did his field of exploration and the means of his investigation also varied accordingly. As a foreign student residing in Singapore, he was eager to explore the relationships between his passion in painting and music. As a full-time artist back in his own country, he remained equally keen to explore, but this time, the relationships between power and politics, and perception and truth preoccupied him. So, in that sense, viewing the paintings in the three exhibitions as distinct, unrelated bodies of works would be unsatisfactory. For me, Justin’s twin passions provide a possible resolution. Just as musical variations comprise forms that are altered versions of a given theme, diverging only by melodic ornamentation and changes in harmony, rhythm or key, these paintings are but the latest variation of Jason’s endeavours. The forms may be different but the investigative and creative spirit remains the same.

 

[1] Low Sze Wee is Deputy Director (Curation and Collection) at the Singapore Art Museum.

[2] Such titles included Momentum, Score for Zorn, and The First Clash of Silence.

[3] This was the subject of Justin’s dissertation for his Masters of Art (Fine Art) degree which examined, in particular, the relationship between the works of painter Jackson Pollock and musician Miles Davis.

[4] Tan, Kelvin. Breaking Forms – Justin Lim’s Search for the Modes to the Abstract (catalogue essay for exhibition Momentum held in 2006)

[5] Pravacki, Milenko. Decoding the Inevitable – Justin Lim’s Journey Towards the Agents, Actions and Consequences (catalogue essay for exhibition Agents, Actions and Consequences held in 2007)

[6] Interviews with artist on 6 June and 27 December 2008.

[7] This refers to the trial of a political analyst over the murder of a Mongolian woman in October 2006. The case became a political scandal because the defendant had close ties to the governing party as well as Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

[8] This refers to a series of private and public activities which celebrated Malaysia’s 50th Independence Day in 2007.

[9] HINDRAF refers to the ‘Hindu Rights Action Force’ which is a coalition of non-governmental Hindu organisations which had initiated protests and rallies to preserve their community rights in late 2007. These later led to several arrests and detentions without trial made by the government under the Internal Security Act.

[10] Malaysia was ranked the 47th out of 180 countries in the 2008 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. This was said to be its worst performance since the ranking was introduced in 1995. (refer to http://www.transparency.org/news_room/in_focus/2008/cpi2008/cpi_2008_table and http://limkitsiang.com/archive/2008/sep08/lks4912.htm)

[11] There are numerous references to ‘bogeyman’ in popular literature such as Internet blogs. (refer to http://educationmalaysia.blogspot.com/2006/09/bogeyman-politics.html and http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/hrfeatures/HRF70.htm, where the education system and the Internal Security Act are respectively referred to as the ‘bogeyman’.)

[12] Interviews with artist on 6 June and 27 December 2008.