Works That Speak Vol­umes

Per­for­mance artist and ce­ram­i­cist Mr. Ja­son Tan has un­veiled new works that ex­plore the no­tions of change and trans­for­ma­tion

Portfolio - - IN THIS ISSUE - by Sandy Ong

The only source of light em­a­nat­ing through the dark gallery comes from 12 can­dles, each pen­cil-thin and as long as a fin­ger. They are ar­ranged in a hap­haz­ard row, held up­right by a small pool of hot wax at their base – wax that is seared onto the fin­ger­nails and fore­arm of Mr. Ja­son Lim. It must hurt, but per­for­mance artist Lim gives no in­di­ca­tion of any pain, his face a mask of pure con­cen­tra­tion as he makes his way around the room. With slow, pur­pose­ful move­ments that speak vol­umes of self-con­trol, he ar­ranges his body into var­i­ous po­si­tions – stand­ing erect against a wall, can­dle-lit arm clasp­ing at his face or in a chest salute; ly­ing with his belly flat on the ground, limbs sprayed at awk­ward an­gles. The au­di­ence watches in com­plete si­lence, trans­fixed by the hu­man can­de­labra. There’s some­thing mes­mer­iz­ing and oddly med­i­ta­tive about Lim’s hour-and-a-half long per­for­mance, his most recent one to date in Sin­ga­pore. Per­haps it’s the way the can­dle­light glows, throw­ing his sharp fea­tures into re­lief – close-shaven head, hol­low eyes, an­gu­lar cheek­bones – or how he man­ages to hold each po­si­tion with an ab­so­lute still­ness for min­utes on end. It’s this de­lib­er­ate slow­ing down of time, of en­forced silent con­tem­pla­tion that marks many per­for­mance pieces of Lim’s, who is one of Sin­ga­pore’s most cel­e­brated artists. “Some­times I think we are so lack­ing in pa­tience,” he says of our lives to­day. So the preg­nant pauses in his work are in­ten­tional. “It’s about me re­ally spend­ing time with the ma­te­rial, and me spend­ing time with the au­di­ence... I hope that in one and half hours, they are also in a med­i­ta­tive sit­u­a­tion...maybe they are clearer in their head through that si­lence.” He muses: “Art has to pos­sess a spir­i­tual value, some­thing that opens cer­tain states of con­scious­ness, be­cause we are los­ing our­selves too quickly.”

Quiet Calm

Ex­plor­ing the no­tions of change and trans­for­ma­tion has been a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for Lim through­out his nearly three-decades long ca­reer. Since com­plet­ing his train­ing at London’s Cen­tral St Martins Col­lege of Art & De­sign in the early 1990s, Lim has gone on to hold 17 solo ex­hi­bi­tions, shown his work in more than 25 coun­tries, and served as an artist-in-res­i­dence eight times. In Sin­ga­pore, he’s bet­ter known for his ceramic work rather than his per­for­mance pieces, thanks to a ban on per­for­mance art in the coun­try from 1994 to 2004. Things have changed since then and Mr. Lim con­tin­ues to make waves with his work in both the lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional art scenes to­day. His lat­est piece, Duet with Light, per­formed at Sin­ga­pore’s LASALLE Col­lege of the Arts in Fe­bru­ary, is his first solo ex­hi­bi­tion of 2018. It is part a larger se­ries of per­for­mance pieces called Duet, which Mr. Lim first con­ceived in 2005. Each Duet per­for­mance fo­cuses on a par­tic­u­lar ma­te­rial, vary­ing widely from can­dles, thread, Scotch tape, honey, and even slime trails left be­hind by snails. “I call it Duet be­cause I spend a du­ra­tion with a ma­te­rial so I can dis­cover and ex­plore it,” Mr. Lim says. Duet with Light, which he has per­formed once be­fore in Sin­ga­pore and twice pre­vi­ously at art fes­ti­vals in Chicago and Venice, is of­ten de­scribed at ‘med­i­ta­tive’ and ‘po­etic’. His lat­est arm-on-fire piece was fol­lowed by two other Duet with Light works, also per­formed at LASALLE. One in­volved Lim sit­ting at a table one-on-one across from par­tic­i­pants, silently plac­ing lighted can­dles be­tween their fin­gers. The other saw him med­i­tat­ing with a heavy rock alit with can­dles upon his head. It’s pre­cisely the na­ture of th­ese shows – calm, still, re­flec­tive – that dis­tin­guishes Mr. Lim from other per­for­mance artists, says Ms. Bala Starr, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts at LASALLE. “I think a lot of con­tem­po­rary per­for­mances, es­pe­cially in the sorts that we see around the world in larger in­sti­tu­tions to­day, usu­ally have a sort of more spec­tac­u­lar el­e­ment (to them),” says Ms. Starr. “Some­thing of Ja­son’s (per­for­mance) harks back to a time where we didn’t seek the spec­tac­u­lar. “It doesn’t have all the bells and whis­tles of some­thing that trans­forms an in­stal­la­tion,” she says. “But it is another zone of think­ing that is trans­for­ma­tive for the au­di­ence as much as it is for the artist.”

A Foun­da­tion of Calm

There is “a foun­da­tion of calm un­der­neath his prac­tise,” Ms. Starr says, one that is ev­i­dent through­out his work. Prior to the be­gin­ning of each Duet with Light per­for­mance in Fe­bru­ary, au­di­ence mem­bers were asked to wait out­side the ex­hi­bi­tion room and get them­selves into a quiet, con­tem­pla­tive state. Through the glass panels of the gallery, you could see Lim pac­ing the floor slowly, like an ath­lete men­tally putting him­self through the paces be­fore the start­ing whis­tle blows. “I tried to speak to him just be­fore to ask if he was ready for us to open the doors, but he didn’t re­spond to me. It was so em­bar­rass­ing,” re­calls Ms. Starr, laugh­ing.

“I need a kind of quiet space to men­tally pre­pare my­self,” ex­plains Mr. Lim. That was true even for the sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion he held at LASALLE in March, fol­low­ing Duet with Light. Although Un­der the Shadow of the Banyan Tree was not strictly per­formed in front of an au­di­ence – mem­bers of the public were free to come en­ter the gallery to ob­serve Lim as he sculpted a clay banyan tree over the course of a week – Mr. Lim dis­played the same dis­ci­plined ap­proach to his work. “He’s like an Olympic ath­lete,” says gallery sit­ter Ms. Ju­bilee Howe. She ob­served Mr. Lim work­ing from 12 to 6pm each day, fore­go­ing lunch and stop­ping only for five min­utes half­way through. He would come in half an hour early each day to pre­pare him­self for the work ahead, walk­ing qui­etly while think­ing things through in his head. At the end of each day, he would “stand and stare at his work for about 15 min­utes,” she says. “But you can feel like he’s in a lighter mood at the end of it.” Mr. Lim’s quiet, self-con­trolled way of work­ing is, fun­nily enough, com­pletely op­po­site to how his wife op­er­ates. Also a ce­ram­i­cist, her work in­volves smash­ing ob­jects to recre­ate art from the things she breaks. And she needs an en­vi­ron­ment with mu­sic, not si­lence, to work in. But who’s to say op­po­sites don’t at­tract? In their free time, the cou­ple en­joy tak­ing their res­cue dog Chip out for long walks through their neigh­bor­hood in Lit­tle In­dia.

Banyan Tree Project

It was on one of th­ese walks when in­spi­ra­tion for the banyan tree project first struck. “I was do­ing a lot of walk­ing in back al­leys along the streets of Sin­ga­pore and would notice plants grow­ing in very strange places, com­ing out from the cracks,” re­calls Mr. Lim. The plants, it turned out, were a type of fig tree com­monly seen in Sin­ga­pore and other parts of South­east Asia. The more dig­ging he did, the more fas­ci­nated Mr. Lim be­came with the fi­cus species. “They are revered or re­garded as sa­cred by dif­fer­ent cul­tures, re­li­gions, and com­mu­ni­ties,” he ex­plains. In Hin­duism, the fig tree is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the ma­te­rial world; Bud­dha gained en­light­en­ment un­der one (the Bodhi tree); and the Bi­ble tells of how Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover them­selves up af­ter eat­ing the for­bid­den fruit in the Gar­den of Eden. Mr. Lim’s fas­ci­na­tion with the banyan tree in­spired many of his works in the 2000s. There were ceramic cre­ations fea­tur­ing the banyan tree’s aerial roots draped some­what sin­is­terly across rocks, high­light­ing the plant’s par­a­sitic na­ture. There were tow­er­ing struc­tures of branches and vines in­ter­twin­ing with hu­man bones. And there were ceramic, labyrinthe-like, cross-sec­tional im­pres­sions of root for­ma­tions. The piece cre­ated at LASALLE saw Mr. Lim fash­ion a banyan tree – chest-high with mul­ti­ple stumps and trunks, long ten­drils and snaking roots on a 4-by-5-me­ter ir­reg­u­lar base – us­ing one and a half tonnes of ter­ra­cotta clay. It was his sec­ond in­stal­la­tion of the piece, hav­ing pre­vi­ously pre­sented it in Jakarta in 2017. Clay, he says, is one of his fa­vorite medi­ums to work with. “It’s a hap­tic kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, where you’re not just mak­ing some­thing through vis­ual but also through touch,” says Mr. Lim. “The hand is touch­ing the ma­te­rial and what­ever thoughts you have is trans­ferred quite di­rectly through the head to the arm and then to the ma­te­rial, so there’s quite an im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion to it.” It’s dif­fer­ent from other forms of art, for ex­am­ple, paint­ing, where your “hand is dis­tanced from the can­vas through a paint­brush,” he says. He also likes how or­ganic clay is. “It’s a two-way in­ter­ac­tion from work­ing with the ma­te­rial...and I have to al­low that liv­ing ma­te­rial to re­spond to what I want it to do.”

Com­ing High­lights

The liv­ing, or­ganic na­ture of clay is es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing to Mr. Lim be­cause as an artist, he draws a lot of his in­spi­ra­tion from na­ture and nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena. When asked about up­com­ing plans for the year, his eyes light up as he men­tions Au­gust, when he’ll be trav­el­ling to Nor­way to take part in a land art in­stal­la­tion. It’s a type of art that is made di­rectly into the land­scape, us­ing ma­te­ri­als found nat­u­rally in the sur­round­ings. In­vited artists like him will be ‘stranded on an is­land’ and given a few days to cre­ate pieces of work, he says. Be­fore Nor­way, Mr. Lim had his hands full with an ex­hi­bi­tion in May that he cu­rated for a gallery in Jakarta. He’ll also keep cre­at­ing new art, and shar­ing the knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence he’s gained over a long ca­reer with the teenage stu­dents he teaches at Sin­ga­pore’s School of the Arts. “Art is re­ally about dis­ci­pline, you need that dis­ci­pline to sus­tain yourself over your prac­tice,” Mr. Lim of­ten re­minds his stu­dents. He’s liv­ing proof of his words of wis­dom – two weeks af­ter his arm-on-fire per­for­mance, his left fore­arm re­mains cov­ered in a patch­work of plas­ters, con­ceal­ing the burns he sus­tained from hot can­dle wax drip­ping onto his bare skin. But to Mr. Lim, the fin­ished work made it all worth­while.

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