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‘I believe that the human race has developed a form of collective schizophrenia

in which we are not only the slaves to this imposed thought behaviour,

but we are also the police force of it.’ – David Icke

The ornamentation or patina of a society is, as Icke suggests, a developed form of schizophrenia where the individual is both colored by, and responsible for, the frame within which they exist.  We act out multiple roles – identities – along prescribed paths. Simply we are the product of our society and visa versa.

Justin Lim has long questioned this contested territory in his paintings, what he describes as ‘existential ponderations’. His canvases are not so much political in agenda but, rather, well from Lim’s need for affirmation of our existence; a kind of truth seeking exercise that dissects the interwoven platforms of religion, social mores, politics and popular culture. My dictionary confirms Lim’s standpoint: existentialism is the philosophy of shaping one’s ‘self-chosen mode of existence and moral stance with respect to the rest of the world’. It hits it in one.  Lim’s new paintings confidently ask, how do we responsibly navigate the belief systems we are born into, or confined within?  And, in fact, how malleable are we?

It is not surprising then this exhibition is titled Secret Identities. It is a term that conjures cyber pseudonyms and covert operations, of veiled truths or layered realities. It implies a veneer or surface decoration that plays up perceptions and bolsters disinformation. Lim fleshes out this duality in his suite of 15 paintings of clearly recognizable characters within this art scene and what he describes as their ‘manipulated identities’ through the addition of text and motifs. Lim’s composite portraits arrive at a very different portrayal of the person and they seem to scream out at the viewer with a knowing consensus – ‘hey you’re branding me’.

It is a bold move of Lim’s and it drives two distinct reactions from the viewer. The first opens us to how we read and, by implication understand the cultural quagmires of this place by exposing bias through sloganistic zeal. Perceptions are massaged into dogma; and dogma blinds critical thought. Take the painting Guilty [2010], for example, where the semantics of the word and the physical gesture of the sitter, artist Noor Mahnun Mohamed, prescribe our reaction. Dressed in combat khaki’s and a t-shirt with the South East Asian tiger beer symbol, she is backdrop by floral decorations and overlaid with stencils of female anatomy. It is a complex image that questions the role and rites of women in this society – but are our thoughts guilt-free? While we stare blatantly into the resigned gesture of Anum in her role as ventriloquist to a recent case in Malaysia, where a Muslim woman was caught consuming alcohol and was sentenced to a caning, she is steadfast, almost smug, catching our eye with knowing. This image is no longer a portrait but a psycho-semantic dialogue. To question the ‘framing’ of Anum reverts our consciousness back to the secret identities it harbors. It is a device Lim uses repeatedly across this exhibition.

The second reaction scanning this suite of portraits takes a more universal position. Simply, Lim challenges notions of correctness and perceptions of beauty. He works against the traditional genre of the portrait rendering his sitters slightly awkward and marring their ‘ideal’ with blemishes, distractions aimed at placating or fooling the onlooker.  Most obvious are their ‘constructed’ tattoos and semi-obliteration through sprayed slogans aka the signature of a street artist. It is an irreverent dis-ornamentation. In effect it usurps the individual’s identity with a secret agenda, to the point of irreality.

But these paintings are not all heady concepts and identity politics. Tattoos are extremely interesting in a contemporary popular context. While they have long carried a stigma in society, today they are deemed a fashionable adornment. They are an affirmation of one’s sense of themself and yet here that choice is made for them by Lim. There is a tension of definitions. This transexperience deals with memories and belief systems, that is, how we reconfigured the meaning of a motif outside a singular bias. Are our perceptions substantiated?  A good example is the painting We Want You [2010], a portrait of Samsudin Abdul Wahab with the word ‘REPENT’ emblazoned across his chest.  The word itself is enmeshed with Christian indoctrination and when paired with the iconography of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, devils and angels, it is a battle ground of religious dogma, one underlined by Samsudin’s somewhat tortured expression and the sprayed slogan ‘we want you’. 

The same tensions are played out in Lim’s self-portrait The Power of Equality [2010], a kind of hellish boxing match of beliefs sketched out in symbolic tattoos and the word ‘REDEMPTION’. Who is being saved from such ill-fated decline? Despite contemporary readings and popular culture, the tattoo and graffiti tag are still largely territories that offer a visible psychobiography of the person at hand, both participant and voyeur.

Scanning around the gallery we are faced with the charged tags:  ‘Repent’, ‘Savior’, ‘Rise above’, ‘Destroyer’, ‘Love can save you’, and ‘American idle’ – they have a certain evangelical ring about them. For Lim the text serves as a decoder to the painting’s message, a ‘what you read is what you get’ philosophy, and counterpoint to the concealment of their layered identities, not unlike propaganda itself. There is something emphatic in their confidence.  A good example is “Pop is Dead”.  It is so sure we believe it. Or how about the portrait of Fauzul Yusri in “I am a Malay Boy”. Wearing an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt, it captures the smashing confluence of popular western trends within the belief structures of Malaysian society, and indeed its implication as a good Muslim. Lim reminds us that one might listen to metal music and pray five times a day – it is a contemporeanity brokered on our own compote of beliefs and is a rich and textured portrait of a place.

We are left with the conclusion that we are no longer looking at visages of Anum, Samsudin, Fauzul or the other identifiable artists within this scene. Identity constantly permutates – it is not a static picture – and the speed at which we redefine ourselves [and our belief structures] has spiraled into a dervish in our 21st century. Collective schizophrenia, to return to Icke’s words, describes our fragmentation between difference and homogeneity, between dogma and freedom. Metaphorically, the truth lies between the layers of these paintings – in the disornamentation of Lim’s secret identities.

Gina Fairley is a freelance writer specialising in Southeast Asian contemporary art. She was formerly Exhibition Co-ordinator for the Biennale of Sydney.