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Where's the frame

Nicole Bainov

March 27, 2023 9:32 PM


As a woman of mixed Singaporean and British heritage, Hannah Lim’s works explore the relationship between her two cultures, delving into how this has been reflected historically in furniture design, objects and architecture. Chinoiserie, an 18th century design trend, is a thread throughout her practice, integrating elements of both European and Chinese design, culture and taste into her works. Working mainly with sculpture and painting, Lim’s current works also analyse the way in which Classical Chinese literature focuses on enchanted creatures, objects and mythic storytelling. The resulting works are consequently a direct response to these texts, which are often coded with complex cultural meanings, and highlight a unique and highly personal storytelling that explores identity, femininity and culture. Nicole Bainov spoke to the artist about the ideas behind her recent body of work, the thematic references and her upcoming projects.

Hannah Lim inside her studio.

It’s lovely to meet you today, Hannah. The first thing that catches my eye is how multi-disciplinary your practice is.  Why don’t you walk me through your trajectory, let’s go back to the beginning – where did your artistic path start?

When I was doing my A-levels I wasn’t sure whether I was going to do art, but I’ve always really loved it as a passion hobby. So, I decided I was going to do a foundation and that’s when I got into CSM (Central Saint Martins). I’ve grown up in London as well, so it was great to extend and spend another year there experiencing the city in a new artistic way and living in a super creative environment and super free. That was exciting! Then after that I studied at Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh) for three years and specialized in sculpture. A lot of my background is primarily in sculpture. I kind of moved into sculpture at CSM and Edinburgh, and then I did my master’s at Oxford University (Ruskin School of Art). Whilst I was there my work began to expand more into sculptures that come together to form an installation. 

It’s interesting you say that – I’ve noticed even your paintings have a sculptural quality to them right? Precisely Ornament of Enchantment from Pictorum Gallery’s recently opened show, ‘The Songs of Hecate’?

Exactly, I started moving more into elements of paintings; creating sculptures that were two and three-dimensional. I sat between this boundary to create these intricate but vast overwhelming installations. With the Snuff Bottle series. I started making these in lockdown partially because I couldn’t make the larger ones from home, so I reverted to a smaller practice. I was considering doing this for quite a while. I wanted to create an element of focused detail in amongst the larger works. 

Hannah Lim, Ornamente of Enchantment, 2023.

It's quite impressive that you created the Snuff Bottle series at home during lockdown. I imagine you’re comfortable with the material, how young were you when you started to experiment with ceramics?

When I was a teenager my artwork at school was heavily painting and drawing but there were always elements of sculpture (always small and detailed). I’d had this background of playing about with this material as a teenager. And then I stopped whilst doing my degree and on my foundation. I essentially left ceramics and came back to it during the pandemic. I think it was important for me whilst doing my degree to push myself and expand, to create big and complicated sculptures. This is where I learned more complicated techniques such as laser cutting. I realized I could learn large scale sculpting and after that come back to these techniques I’ve had in the past and apply new ideas and thoughts to those practices such as the way I frame works and display them. 

That leads me to another question I had – what’s the idea behind the Snuff Bottle? Where does that come from? Is it inspired by your mixed heritage (Singaporean & British)?

I suppose a lot of my work is connected to my mixed heritage. My mum is British, and my dad is Chinese Singaporean. I think I’ve always been quite interested in finding objects or exploring design trends that really reflect the relationship between those two cultures; how those two cultures have collided and what comes out of that. A particular interest for me is the Chinoiserie which is this 18th century design trend where a lot of European designers re imagine Chinese designs for the European market. What came out of that was these intricate, ornate, and creaturely works. This series also has strong connections to Rococo. I was very intrigued by this practice and wanted to reimagine it in my work to reconnect with my Chinese heritage which I hadn’t experienced so much growing up. These bottles are inspired by my trips to British museums as a kid where there were always these vast collection of snuff bottles in the East Asian or Chinese section. They became an emblem of my view of my heritage. 

Hannah Lim, Snuff Bottle, 2023

What would you say is your reasoning for the way you install the Snuff Bottle? As many will see - it’s quite unique. Is this symbolic in any way? Or purely aesthetic?

Most of my work has been heavily inspired by furniture and furniture design so it feels appropriate and makes sense that I would create a sort of pedestal or shelf or the plinth that these works sit on. In this case, the shelf becomes a part of the work, and it contributes to this idea of these objects interacting – it feels more important. It’s also inspired by the way I saw these snuff bottles in museums as a child. I am quite interested in ornament; it adds to this idea of an overly ornate display.

Hannah Lim, Shrine to the Mountains and Seas, 2022.

Another thought that comes to mind is whether your oeuvre comments on colonialism and re-appropriation? Especially when you mention the idea of the ornate as a thematic reference. 

Yeah, I think it’s something I’m always questioning with my work. With chinoiserie its quite often a garish very over-the-top design trend. So, it does reflect a past representation of cultural appropriation. Particularly when I started looking at cultural appropriation, I was interested in this topic in relation to my works. I was intrigued visually by chinoiserie but was equally aware of its colonial history and how I could reimagine it. Bringing these two cultures together was a way for me to access these two parts of my experience. Chinoiserie has a strong connection to orientalism and the way that the east is viewed by the west. 

Hannah Lim, Tyger Tyger, 2023.

Let’s talk about your diptych Tyger Tyger, what was your process when making this piece? I gathered a sort of icon motif, perhaps with a religious undertone?

I think I was quite intrigued by diptychs and two panel paintings. It’s interesting you say that because I was interested by alter pieces and religious paintings because again there’s a lot of ornate architecture in religions, in shrines. The piece takes from Chinese mythology and medieval mythology and medieval bestiaries. The bestiaries are basically compendiums of beasts, they document beasts that were believed to exist. Many of these creatures have holy meanings and there’s Chinese bestiaries such as the tiger. The piece is particularly inspired by this story from Pliny’s Natural History which is about this tigress whose cub is stolen by a hunter and he flees on a horse, and she chases after him and he drops this mirrored ball and she sees herself in this mirror ball and mistakes her own reflection for a reflection of her cub. The hunter gets away and she loses her cub! I was very intrigued by this story because it’s a very early story involving a tiger in Europe and it’s interesting to see how people saw tigers from a mythical perspective. The story has been re-written a lot of times after Pliny. 

Installation shot of Hannah Lim (right) and Johanna Seidel (left) at the exhibition 'The Songs of Hecate' at Pictorum Gallery.

It's so intriguing hearing about how multi-faceted you when it comes to your oeuvre. Especially with Tyger Tyger and the Snuff Bottle series. What do you have in the horizon for the near future? What’s coming up for you exhibitions-wise? Do you have a vision of how you would like your practice to evolve?

For the next year I’m mostly working on a few group shows. I have one in Canada in the summer, in Montreal at Duran Marshaal. I’m also doing a group show on an island called Tinos at Hecate studios. They run a few artist studios and now they’re moving into doing one-off projects and exhibitions. Next year I have two big solo shows (at the beginning of 2024). One of them is part of this residency I’ve been doing this past year with Pangolin London, they’re connected to this huge foundry that casts work for big artists like Kusama so it’s exciting for me as a sculptor, I’ll be able to experiment with much larger works. Then I have another solo in New York with Denny Gallery!

You can Hannah Lim's work right now at Pictorum Gallery current exhibition 'The Songs of Hecate' until the 26th April, 2023.

Recent Exhibitions include Ornamental Mythologies: Solo Show at Edinburgh Printmakers (2022); The Tiger’s Eye - Huxley-Parlour Gallery - Solo Show(2022); Tigers, Dragons and Ghosts Oh My! - Duo Show with G.E. Liu at Dinner Gallery (2022); In The Margins - Commonage Projects (2022); The Red Room Exhibition - Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery (2022); Solo Show at Changing Room Gallery.

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