‘I can sense her presence in the works’: the bold designs and trailblazing life of sculptor Kim Lim

The 20th-century Singaporean-British sculptor Kim Lim once said that her practice was informed “not so much [by] volume, mass and weight, but with form, space, rhythm and light”.

These concerns ripple throughout a new landmark exhibition covering almost 40 years of the artist’s career, from 1959 to 1997. Held at the Hepworth Wakefield, with its views of the River Calder and the Hepworth Garden, the exhibition offers a suitably meditative and sensuous space in which to experience Lim’s work. On display are bold structures assembled from metal and wood offcuts, lithographic prints and etchings, documentary photography and dazzling stone sculptures carved with rhythmic grooves.

Born in 1936 in Singapore, Lim grew up in wartime Malacca and Penang, under the shadow of British colonialism and the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. Leaving behind her comfortable middle-class life, Lim came to London aged 17, under the guardianship of the British high commissioner, to pursue an arts education, first at St Martins, then at the Slade. She married the Scottish sculptor and painter William Turnbull in 1960, and moved to Camden Square, where she and Turnbull each had their own studios.

Two sons, Alex and Johnny, followed. Now custodians of their parents’ estates, Lim’s sons recall a vibrant childhood, one filled with music – including jazz, Indian raga, Balinese gamelan and shakuhachi played by Zen Buddhist monks – and movement. The two boys took up martial arts and skateboarding, they tell me, and Lim even constructed a couple of boards for her sons, one out of wood, another from metal flooring. As kids, the brothers often found themselves turning the wheels of their mother’s printing press, or using her brass copper plates to do etchings while she worked with great energy.

It’s her later stone sculptures that evoke the most vivid memories for Johnny: “I can sense her presence in those works, [see] her in the garden chipping away.” Despite losing sensation in her left arm after a serious car accident in the early 70s, Lim would hew huge blocks of stone without assistance, dressed in her boilersuit and gloves, with face mask and bandana firmly in place.

The researcher Hammad Nasar has pointed out that there are more than 80 works of art by Kim Lim in British public collections – the second largest number for a British artist of Asian or African descent, after Anish Kapoor – and yet her position in the landscape of postwar British art was relegated to the periphery after her death in 1997, aged only 61. And this despite the fact that Lim had been the only woman and artist of colour to be included in the Hayward Annual exhibition in 1977; she had also been on its first all-female selection committee.

In part, this erasure may have been due to Lim’s own resistance to framing an easy narrative around her identity. In 1989 she politely declined conceptual artist Rasheed Araeen’s invitation to participate in The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain exhibition, again at the Hayward, explaining that she did not want to “other herself”. That pivotal exhibition would go on to feature Lim’s contemporaries, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Frank Bowling, and younger stars Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid.

For Lim’s sons, it has been “special” working with curators who are encountering her work for the first time. The labour of gathering and cataloguing their mother’s work can be overwhelming, Alex says that for a long time it “felt like pushing a rock up a hill”. Now this exhibition – alongside a retrospective at the National Gallery Singapore next year – offers an opportunity to prompt new and revitalised readings of Lim’s work and legacy – a step towards “building the picture completely”.
Kim Lim: Space, Rhythm & Light is at the Hepworth Wakefield, 25 November to 2 June.

‘We’re building the picture completely’: highlights from the exhibition

Kim Lim’s studio, Camden Square, London, c2012 (main picture)
A photograph of Lim’s studio details an exuberant and expansive set of visual reference points: ancient temples, prehistoric stone circles, modern skyscrapers, ornamental water features – as well as the natural forms of a sea star, and a browning leaf, and pictures of her young boys.

Water Piece, 1979

In many of her later works, Lim sought to capture the organic movement of water flowing, so that they seemed almost as though they’d been weathered by natural processes of erosion. Until recently, this piece lived in her son Johnny’s garden, alongside the robins that liked to come and drink from and bathe in it. “It’s probably not the best thing for the patina,” he laughs, “[but it’s] a really nice connection with nature.”

Ronin, 1963

Early works such as this were made from pieces of scrap wood. Curators have observed parallels between Lim’s identity as a Singaporean-British artist of Chinese descent negotiating her own artistic heritage and education, and the Japanese figure of the masterless, wandering samurai.

Kim Lim and William Turnbull playing chess, c1970

The couple travelled extensively in east and south-east Asia, and Lim took photographs to study the play of space and mass in the light and air of these particular places. In Japan, she admired “structures [that] can be opened to let nature in … those freestanding ‘gates’ that give you such a specific feeling of entering although all you have around you is open space.”

Artist’s photograph of her exhibition at the Roundhouse, Camden Town, 1979

Lim’s first survey exhibition at the Roundhouse was displayed in a non-linear, non-chronological method and included her early metal and wooden sculptures, as well as prints from the 60s and 70s. It marked a defining point, prompting her to turn to carving denser materials like rose aurora marble, Portland stone and granite.