Justin Lim uses art to make sense of it all. His canvases explore observations of the urban environment; his ideas are developed based on the complexities of social and political issues that permeate his everyday life. Lim returns to his familiar color usage, which he skillfully uses to address cultural identity, matched with his symbolic use of visual vocabularies in HONEY TRAP ARCADIA. The artworks, which were put to paint during his time in Australia, continues to journal the artist’s concerns and day-to-day observations.
We speak to the artist about HONEY TRAP ARCADIA, the working process and his thoughts behind the series.
Welcome home! You have recently concluded 2 residencies in Artspace, Sydney and Tasmanian College of the Arts, Australia (2016). The works from HONEY TRAP ARCADIA is very much a result of your time away. How was your experience there?
It is always an experience developing a relationship with a new environment. Being away from familiarity shifts my perspective as I learn to interact and share various aspects of what I do with a new audience. Also, I have not been in an institutional environment for quite a few years now and the opportunity to be working back at an art school was refreshing. Interacting with teachers, students and renewing a sense of camaraderie with other artists of various disciplines was important. Painting can at times be an isolated practice, I could sometimes get caught up with my work so intensely that I forget how important conversations, critiques and friendships are in shaping how one views the world. Residencies offer that kind of space for interaction and connection for me. Being away also allows me the space to introspect and reflect on myself as a Malaysian, sometimes you need to be away from home to realise how much of it you take with you wherever you go.
What is your working process like for HONEY TRAP ARCADIA? Has your experience in Australia changed it in anyway?
My work process has always been somewhat chaotic to start with. I tend to have lots of ideas I want to express which I struggle to articulate purely through painting. I play around with imagery a lot to create narratives to which I hope convey certain moods and feelings that reflect my observations of society at that particular time. One of the things I noticed in Australia was how important the traditional landscape was in art and the power it has to connect past and present, the people and the land, the supernatural and reality. Until today, landscape remains as an important element in their (Australian) art. That specific aspect made me reflect on the distinctive elements in Malaysian art that had carried on through the years.
You’re constantly pursuing the Malaysian identity and psyche in your work. However, one cannot help but to notice your nomadic nature – concluding the final touches to your artworks only upon returning home. Is Malaysia your Honey Trap?
I don’t think that there is one particular Malaysian identity. I am concerned about the ‘identity’ that is based on my own personal history, experiences, sensitivities and how the environment affects my psyche, so I guess it is only natural some kind of ‘Malaysian-ness’ is expressed. Some of my works have touched upon local social and political issues, although I tend to articulate my concerns metaphorically rather than directly. I don’t think art should come across as didactic in any way and should raise more questions than give answers. My nomadic nature is simply a result for when an opportunity to travel arises. I have had a bit of luck with artist residencies over the years and if not for these opportunities, I would probably just be working in my studio. I started to make most of the works from this exhibition during the residency in Australia and finished them upon returning to Malaysia as I allow myself the space to experiment when I am away and then tie it all back in with the ongoing narratives and concerns within my artistic practice upon returning home.
Does the fluctuating distance (from Malaysia) affect your practice in any way?
I have lived in Kuala Lumpur most of my life and having some fluctuating distance from the concrete environment and traffic is quite healthy. I realized it is a place I have to leave only to fall back in love with upon return. Being away also helps me to view things more objectively by being able to observe humanity from a different point of view. It helps inform my art.
It is very much similar as to any kind of relationship. There are nurturing moments but also challenging ones, there are bouts of confrontation and resolution… Ultimately the painting documents that (relationship). At times, I also feel like I am paying homage to a pictorial language that already has a very rich history and that some elements of my work are an ode to the history of painting itself Having said that, there is also a sense of responsibility towards my own history. There is something about painting that is very personal and at the end of the day it should be a map of one’s life.
How much of what you do takes form during execution, in other words, how much of a work is made up as you move along? Are your works location based and is there much room for fluidity in your creation?
There is always room for improvisation during the execution. Many times I end up covering up bits here and there, composing the painting as I make them. It is like an editing process, cutting and pasting images to get the right composition and feeling. I try to have as much fun as I can during this process, hopefully without overthinking things, which I tend to do. The location where I make my work does inform my technical process. In my last exhibition, I made these black textural paintings as a result of the lighting conditions in an old studio where light played a huge role in how one can view the painting. Sometimes very pragmatic decisions can lead to conceptual ones.
I like the punk approach to your work. You don’t seem too precious with the canvas and your paint is executed in a manner of conviction with a huge dose of attitude.
I think that attitude is a very important ingredient in art because the attitude will determine and form a huge part of the artist’s pysche and the reason why artists do what they do. Everything else will follow from this, in terms of how one expresses themselves, or what one strongly feels important in life. The artists that have had a strong impact on me always had very distinctive attitudes and personalities.
You once mentioned in an interview that you experienced limitations with painting which prompted you to expand your repertoire into installations and sculptures. As one that identifies primarily as a painter, what do you appreciate when working with different mediums?
I started making silkscreen printed t-shirts in 2009 of some of the characters from the ‘Hantu’ series, a body of work I made during a year-long residency at Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia. It was also then that I started thinking about the idea of painting as a coveted object, a trophy hung in museums and institutions as a cultural product of aesthetic value and historical significance. I was very intrigued by this idea and wanted to apply silkscreen printing to the ‘protective’ frames and glass of these ‘high culture’ products. Silkscreen printing carries a low-brow DIY aesthetic and attitude from being used frequently in underground settings and subcultures. I wanted to converge the ‘low- brow’ with the ‘high-brow’.
The razorblades first came about in the work ‘The Chairs that no one sits on’ from the ‘Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss’ series in 2015. Going back to what we talked about before about attitude, the razorblades presented something that I could not achieve with paint alone. The collage of cold sharp steel contrasted heavily against the black impasto paint created an illusion of depth, it also added a precarious element to the work. New mediums can sometimes convey a new sensation or a feeling in which paint can be limited to.
You cement the impermanence of pop culture, contemporary symbols and Western icons that seem superfluous with the hearty stuff like folklores, local rituals and objects. Is your choice of recurring imagery a personal statement? Could you tell us more about it?
I have been collecting random images from various sources, be it magazines, personal photos or from the internet for many years now and I compile them as a visual dictionary of sorts. Compiling imagery helps me compose my thoughts before I start making a work. The recurring imagery acts as both associations and attachments from personal history and concerns in relation to certain periods in my life. Collecting them also documents how my mind meanders to ruminate upon itself. Pondering on repetitive imagery help guide me through my thought process when I conceptualise a work. I have these narratives and stories I want to paint, and these images give me entry points into how I can start composing a work. The visuals come out in this stream of consciousness, regurgitated at random but stem from the same source of concern and intention.
I remember as a child, how I would draw cartoons on paper, making up stories in my head as I drew. I kept on drawing the same thing over and over but the stories in my head would develop and evolve to be this huge event while the subjects on paper remained static and repetitive. The mind works faster than the brush, conjuring up stories were much faster than finishing a sketch. The recurring use of a certain imagery presents an opportunity for me to continually confront ongoing concerns and to keep those concerns present.
Could you share more about your ‘visual dictionary’? How does it work, when does it expire?
I have folders of images from 2008 for example, and sometimes I can go back to revisit these images and relive the events/moments that intrigued me throughout that year. Occasionally, I would pull out a few to have a play, alter them, make a random composition, a digital collage or a sketch. This is just an exercise as I don’t always end up using them in my works. There isn’t any particular expiry date for them as most of the time, they are there to provide visual cues for myself when I start to think about a new work.
Collectively, the images form a personal narrative and an older image will always be a part of that personal history. I tend to use them in ways that I feel can be entry points to reflect certain truths and observations about society but even as the work changes and my concern changes, the images will remain to be a documentation of that certain time / sentiment.
Viewing the full install for the exhibition, the works from HONEY TRAP ARCADIA come together as contrast materials, sustaining a dialogue through the tension created by the displacement of these visual objects. What is your intention in contrasting these objects against each other?
These are strategies for engagement to provide entry points. Certain imagery may identify itself more as ‘Malaysian’ because of our familiarity with them but I don’t think that I make art for a specific audience in mind. I use a certain imagery because of its ability to express certain emotions at that point in time. Sometimes they represent situations that are relevant at a particular time and other times they reveal what the mind wants to see based on our individual understanding and familiarity with the subjects.
I tend to juxtapose images through associations a lot. For example, placing a green coconut next to a bird’s nest could conjure up a relation to the idea of ‘protection’ based on our recent news about a bomoh using coconuts as part of his ritual to protect our home country from a North Korean attack. Sometimes the associations can be really absurd but it serves as the starting point, the perception of the work develops when the narrative comes into the picture. This happens mostly during the execution of the work, a lot gets put in place contextually as I paint.
My works have touched upon local social and political issues but there are certain sensitivities and restrictions when it comes to art in Malaysia. There is also a minefield of complications when it comes to depicting certain people or discussing certain subjects. Art does not have complete freedom (in Malaysia) but I see it as a challenge and a stimulating objective to navigate around these ‘minefields’ to push the boundaries further and further, one step at a time. I don’t consider my paintings as political art but they are various interpretations of what I see as the present reality. I do like things to be more subtle and allegorical, I find this allows more space for the audience to reflect and decipher it’s meaning for themselves. `
On appropriation and borrowing symbols – where do you draw the line?
My childhood was filled with a huge dose of imported culture: from the music I listened to, the books I read, the films I watched and even the art I was into. I grew up in Damansara Utama and witnessed one of the largest shopping malls in the country being built in the early 90’s while I was still in primary school. I pretty much grew up around that one mall in a young and modern suburbia. I had one of my first jobs there working in a comic book shop and was religiously reading American comic books during that time. Comic book art actually taught me to appreciate illustration and draughtsmanship at an early age and music album covers introduced me to artists like Raymond Petition, Mike Kelley and Gerhard Richter.
I think there is a difference in appropriating symbols and appropriating culture. Having a sense of awareness and sensitivity when it comes to cultural appropriation is important as a painter. I am constantly reflecting culture, acting as a mirror to society, as such, the context is most important and it can’t just be appropriating for appropriation’s sake.
One of your key influences, Gerhard Richter’s works have to do with ‘unpainting’, he chooses to make the self-explanatory ambiguous. You seem to take the opposite approach, some your works can be taken quite literally. Lets discuss the function of the Perspex: a (faux) frame framed within a (wooden) frame is a roundabout way to address the fiasco around a presumed value of a superficial object with no function. Is this simplification an instigation of sorts?
What I find so fascinating about Richter is that he has continually kept painting alive. I think a lot of young painters like myself today owe it to Richter. Richter also reinvigorated the idea that desiring ‘beauty’ in art as an acceptable ambition. He made it okay to seek beauty again, particularly during a time when many artists of his generation presumed that aesthetic pleasure was an embarrassing pursuit. What I am attempting in each painting is to pursue ambiguity in it’s meaning through literal representations. The faux frames printed on Plexiglass is a homage to trompe-l’œil. I have always been intrigued as to how this classical technique has for over centuries been used to create an ‘illusion’ of sumptuousness and opulence. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that paintings are a superficial object with zero function but it does tread the thin line – that ‘it can be if that is what you want it to be’. It is this fine line of ambiguity which I find beautiful. The frames touch upon how, throughout history, paintings and authoritative works were presented to the Academy to signify importance, thus elevating the status of the artwork. I decided to print these frames on Plexiglass to question this very notion and also to reflect on the perception of opulence and superficiality in today’s society. This is an homage to that very ‘illusion’.
What is your ‘Rule’?
That conveying feeling is as important as conveying concept.
What are some recent readings that influenced HONEY TRAP ARCADIA that we might see seep through the works?
Recently, I have been watching this TV series called ‘Black Mirror’ which is centered around dark and satirical themes of modern society. Also, authors such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Robert Anton Wilson have always been influential and inspiring to me.
During the artist residency in Australia, I met several Malaysians who had emigrated there which made me think about the phenomenon of the Malaysian diaspora. The work entitled Brain Drain touches upon this issue. The illustration of a caged human brain with protruding razorblades serves as a satirical metaphor for a sense of uncertainty in where the country is heading to politically and economically. Over the past few years, various factors such as better career opportunities abroad, social injustice and corruption has led to a very high rate of working professionals emigrating from Malaysia. Some even found themselves sidelined because of race and religious based policies of governance. Through Brain Drain, I attempt to reflect on some of these truths and draw from feelings of stagnation and disillusionment.
Religion plays a major role in the system of governance in Malaysia and the story of the tempting serpent with the forbidden fruit comes to mind whenever I think of religion. I chose to use this allegory as the basis for the work ‘Agony & Ecstacy’ in which Malaysian flora and fauna are shaped as a human heart pierced with arrows. According to Abrahamic faiths, Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise after eating the forbidden fruit. In a modern world filled with fake news, political scandals and phantom menaces, how do we decide what to believe in? How do we differentiate the truth from the lies?
It’s interesting that you mentioned satire, which is crucial element when viewing your work. Would you care to elaborate further on some of the artworks?
The work ‘Arcadia’ draws from these ponderations of contemporary society. Classically an unattainable poetic space that is harmonious and uncorrupted by civilisation, it has been represented in Renaissance paintings as a vision of Utopian ideals. I wanted to portray a much darker and sinister ‘Arcadia’, in which the two shady characters seem to be coming to an agreement amidst the mysterious landscape that surrounds them. There are also various visual metaphors in my work to portray a subjective view of the idyllic bliss in relation to opulence, decadence and certain unresolved conspiracies of modern Malaysia.
The images from the ‘Honey Trap’ series are meant to raise more questions in relation to what we have discussed but ultimately, they are summaries to this exhibition. I hope to convey a sense of precariousness to these works. Are the subjects themselves dangerous because of the protruding razorblades? Are the razorblades meant to inflict pain or to depict that the subjects are suffering in pain? Why are they incased in a faux frame? Is the frame there to protect us from the danger or are they meant to attract us and act as a ‘Honey Trap’? I try to express dichotomies through this series.
Finally, with words like ‘Sublime’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Utopia,’ there seems to be a constant pursuit of an idyllic state. Do you consider yourself an ‘idealist’ or an ‘optimist’?
I think we all are pursuing some sort of ideal state in our everyday lives, for better or worse. I don’t believe that art itself is going to change the world. People change the world, art gives us room to ponder, reflect and mobilize. I don’t think that I am in search for an idyllic state through my works because I believe Utopia to be an inconceivable idea. Someone told me that it’s unhealthy to be a pessimist before you turn 50, so I guess I shouldn’t be walking down that path at this point. Can one be an idealist and an optimist at the same time? Or maybe I am pessimistically optimistic? I don’t know, I’m really struggling with this one.