S piral II (1983) has a quiet mischief. It comprises seven differently shaped pieces of Portland stone arranged in an incomplete circle. Each stone bears two groove-like incised lines that slide off the top surface onto the sides, suggesting another set of interrupted circles.
This nested loop of seemingly unfinished circles invites engagement. Viewers are tempted to rearrange and realign the pieces — if not physically, at least in their minds — to either ‘finish’ the circle(s) by bringing them together, or ‘expand’ them by increasing the distance between the individual parts. The height of each piece is slightly different – suggesting that any movement of these circular lines would be elliptical, wave-like or, as the title suggests, a spiral.
The work resists resolution. Lim did at least three variations — Spiral I, II and III. She showed them in gallery spaces, under trees and arranged over water. One can conjecture whether this engagement with alternative displays suggests the artist enjoying her work’s resistance to resolution, the different arrangements a form of speculation.
Spiral II is an invitation to put space in play. Indeed, the work’s current installation at Manchester Art Gallery has necessitated ever-closer supervision to keep a vigilant eye on its capacity to excite these playful tendencies. The Gallery invigilators have been primed to look for children (from 2-102) magnetically drawn to the work’s stepping stone formation. First, the expansive circle of Spiral II’s original installation was tightened. Next, the font sizes for the ‘Please Do Not Step’ vinyl lettering that surround the work were increased. Neither had the desired effect. Rope barriers have now been introduced.
Is it the work or its publics that are misbehaving?
Naga (1984) is also an arrangement of seven Portland stones bearing the same incised grooves as Spiral II. Could it be the same stones that have simply been rearranged to suggest a snake slithering across the floor? In Hindu mythology, nagas are semi-divine beings, half-human, half-cobra, that are often associated with guarding treasure.
The idea of Lim using constituent components of her pre-existing work as Lego bricks to configure new work, playfully punctures the seriousness with which her work is often written about in contemporary accounts – with references to Buddhism and spirituality of ‘the East’.
If Naga is indeed Spiral II’s double, what celestial treasure or secret could Spiral II be guarding?
Link I (1975) comprises eight rectangular slats of wood in an arrangement where two single planks ‘link’ three pairs placed facing each other. Sitting low on the floor, the work has no obvious beginning or end. No determined orientation. The central pairing of planks, linked from both sides, forms an enclosed geometric void. While the two pairs on either side, having only one linking plank between them, appear open-ended at the work’s extremities. The work hints at the possibility for this serial linking to be extended into infinity.
Link I can be seen in relation to a larger body of sculptural work including Intervals I and II (1973), and Link II (1976).
Intervals II can be displayed in multiple arrangements of pairs of wooden elements with a spine from which a series of prongs emerge. The work has no obvious front or back; top or bottom. It can be arranged with the prongs facing each other with a short distance between them or with the prongs facing away from each other, and the spines aligned. Lim has also arranged them on the floor with the spines parallel to each other and the prongs intersecting diagonally. Link II comprises six wooden planks arranged at regular intervals between two acrylic tubes that contain them.
These works share an approach to the exploration of rhythm, the occupation of space and the use of light as a sculptural material. Link II and the Intervals are installed leaning against the wall, and the shadows they cast become prominent features of the work. This is particularly significant for Link II, as the acrylic tubes allow the work to bend in a gentle arc between the wall and the floor – in pleasing contrast with the linear shadows cast on both wall and floor.
In her notes, Lim articulated an idea of space as a ‘physical substance’ that her sculptures ‘punctuate’. Link I embodies this idea. Sitting low on the floor, the shadows inside the central void create a general area of darkness, trapping space and light. And it is this differential in light, as much as volume, that invites us to think of it as an ever-extending work.
In notes written for the Tate Gallery (March 1977), Lim writes:
“the two activities — making sculpture and print-making — are of equal importance to me. The difference being that sculpture, for me, is a rather slow process while working on a plate or wood block can produce quick feedback — so that ideas I am involved in during a period sometimes appear first in the prints.’
Her series of prints: Ladder Series I, II, III, IV and V (1972), exemplifies this prints-as-drawings approach in action. The printed images are strikingly similar to Intervals I and Intervals II.
I would like to suggest a reading of the prints not merely as preparatory sketches but as musical scores – that Lim performs in her future sculptures; often producing, as we have seen above, multiple versions of the same work. Each sculptural work, like a musical performance, allows for variation in play but shares a rhythm; and a design, or intention, towards the parsing of space and time.
Kim Lim’s work has been widely collected by Britain’s public museums. But her position within the canons of British art history is at best, slippery.
Lim shares this predicament with other cosmopolitan artists of non-European heritage who chose to make Britain their home; Rasheed Araeen, Frank Bowling, Li Yuan-chia, David Medalla, Anwar Jalal Shemza, and Aubrey Williams, to name but a few. And it is ironic that renewed interest in their work is at least partly being driven by institutional interest elsewhere.
Why this has been the case, and what is to be done about it, are questions for another occasion. But whatever the spur, one is grateful for more opportunities for Lim’s work to be shared with new publics. For its secrets have yet to be fully revealed.
This text first appeared as part of the catalogue for the Kim Lim exhibition at S|2 London 28 September – 16 November 2018.