My reverence for Kim Lim’s stone and marble sculptures stems from what I see as an uncompromising dedication to one central, measured and careful line of enquiry: sustained, meditative, cyclical and generative. Here are works comprising a true aesthetic rationality, which in turn inspire a rewarding aesthetic experience. Mathematically initiated ratios, intervals and repetition, symmetry and asymmetry, negative and positive oppositions and relationships, and unexpected shifts or modulations are some of the inherent aspects. If ‘line’ is the main protagonist in most of the works then space, rhythm and light is its context. More often than not the choice of material is light/white coloured marble and stone, Portland, Limestone, French, grey granite, Rose Aurora or Carrara marble, occasionally slate.
So, if Kim Lim had been a painter working primarily in two dimensions would she have only used black and white and its variations – and perhaps the tooth or exposure of the canvas, just space and line? Well, actually there is more to it here than that. These are not just drawings or sketches in blocks of stone. Here is a very particular kind of interactive physicality. Lim’s sculptures are small and relational. You can somehow imagine embracing or stroking each child’s torso-sized piece or holding the smaller ones in your hands – and one senses that the decision to make human sized sculptures is very deliberate: the intention is corporeal rather than spiritual. You can almost understand the ‘making’ of the work by the artist just by looking and being with it – here is a real engagement with the material – a ‘one to one’. Contemplative, yes, otherworldly, mystical, no… this is about perception, emotional responses and thinking in the here and now.
And, crucially, the real ‘art’ here is a clever, yet minimal, transformative process in order to bring a palpable ‘lightness’ to the heavy material of marble and stone, as well as ‘light’ itself in the sense of a glow or radiation. The surfaces, which seem to absorb natural daylight in order for it then to be emanated, have a strange diaphanous or luminous effect. Light is the life-blood of the palest of these sculptures: the energy they need.
The gently curving, twisting lines are on examination hand carved furrows and grooves of varying depths and widths and sweeps, and the resulting forms are sometimes reminiscent of folded or hanging folds of cloth. All is effortlessly hewn. The deepest incisions, as well as those which are thin and sharp make the blackest lines, whilst wider softer lines create gradated steps or a kind of layering – the shadows. In, for example, Untitled 2, 1993-97 (grey granite) the slightly, but not overly, softened edges that flow down the main body contrast with the flattened top and bottom. This suggests a weather-worn building-block left over from some unknown temple ruin and now revered.
Earlier works such as Column S, 1982, Column P, 1982 and Caryatid, 1985 (all Portland stone) are constituted of three cubed blocks balanced on top of one another vertically and project an even stronger sense of the architectural; they have a cooler constructivist quality. They could be totemic except that there are certainly no symbolic decorations evident. The simple patterns found in nature could be the main inspirations for the incised lines, and the natural world is never far away: ripples of water, the imprints of flower stalks or grasses; perhaps a section of the cut of a wave in beach sand. But, at the same time, I feel, these are actually Kim Lim’s own linear markings or schematic conceptions: they seem as if they have been taken from purely autonomic drawings.
Kim Lim’s stone sculpture takes its place in a line that goes back to Brancusi, and which can be traced through Arp, Hepworth and Noguchi, artists whose work begins in a rapt apprehension of organic forms, trees, fruits, birds… and ends in severely graceful abstraction. Her special contribution consists in a uniquely reflective response to the visual music of the natural world. Her sculpture returns to the springs of life itself, to emblems of the elemental oppositions that shape and define our existence… Kim Lim’s simplicity is not limited to the simple expression of a pre-formed idea: she addresses herself directly to the block of stone as something that will grow under her hands, finding unpremeditated form out of a dialectic of discovery in which idea and material become one. [i]
Another equally significant factor in many of Lim’s signature works is the sensitive and inspired addition of the sculpture’s own stone plinth. Either in a contrasting colour or texture they form part of the whole, and enable the main piece to float or levitate – again creating a dichotomy between the solidity of material and its perception or, perhaps better, allusion. The qualities, textures and different treatments of the various types of stone remind one of the infinite possibilities of graphite pencil on paper: the physicality of crosshatching, rubbing, polishing and shading. Black and white photographs of the sculptures testify to this and there you can really enjoy the interplay of shadow and surface, the rough and the smooth.
Lim made the decision to make work predominantly in stone and marble at the end of the 70s after holding a twenty year retrospective which included these materials alongside others such as wood and metal: ‘it made me very aware of the pull within myself between the ordered, static experience and the dynamic rhythms of organic, structured forms,’ she concluded. ‘How to incorporate and synthesise these two seemingly opposed elements within one work became … the starting point for the … stone sculptures.’ [ii]
It is perhaps obvious that Kim Lim was, along with her husband the artist William Turnbull, actively interested in archaism and was happy to accept any analogy with the archaic sculpture that she sought out or encountered on her travels to places such as Greece and Egypt, China and other countries of the Far East. Her interest in hieratic forms is evident but, she seems to have focused not on the original complete buildings and temples of the ancients but the ruins, the enigmatic bits and pieces that survive and are now scattered.
There is no literal translation for the Japanese word ‘ma’ in English and which describes the ‘gap’ or ‘space’ between two structural parts: an experiential place understood, and with an emphasis on ‘interval’. ‘Ma’ is not something that is created by compositional elements; it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. The day trip down to Roche Court sculpture gallery and park in Wiltshire on a cold and crisp sunny afternoon in March could not have been more intensely ‘ma’. The journey there ended in a short drive down a winding romantic road to nowhere through the saturated garden greenness of our English countryside and I felt I had arrived in Arcadia. Maybe it was my state of mind, the exuberance of daffodils, Wallinger’s static white horse, the orange cows gently communing with modern abstract sculpture in the surrounding fields, the strange oversized or undersized figures creeping up on you in the bushes, or the preserved 19th Century farmhouse filled with the Bloomsburyesque of British Modern. All this together put me in mind of a Leonora Carrington painting. The ‘ma’ within the ‘ma’ here was the experience of the new geometric shadowed Gallery cleverly inserted with its wall of glass looking out to and reflecting the park, and which could have been made for Kim Lim’s sculptures. You needed to be there: I think we all felt her presence.
Kim Lim: Carvings is on at the New Art Centre, Roche Court until the 25th of May
Kim Lim (1936-97) grew up in Singapore and at the age of 18 moved to London to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art (1954–6) where she pursued an interest in wood-carving; she then moved to the Slade School of Art, where she concentrated on printmaking, graduating in 1960. That year she married the sculptor and painter William Turnbull and settled in London permanently. She travelled widely through East-India, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Egypt and Europe, often on her way to or from Singapore.
i Stone/Paper/Breath by Mel Gooding p 30 in catalogue, ‘Kim Lim’, published by Camden Arts Centre, 1999
ii Notes by Kim Lim, March 1977: The Sculpture of Empathy by Martin Holman p 1 in catalogue published for ‘Kim Lim’, by Camden Arts Centre, 1999