Justin Lim

About the Artist

Justin Lim (b. 1983 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) completed his postgraduate studies in 2006 with the Master of Art (Fine Art) programme by The Open University UK conducted at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore after obtaining a BA(Hons) Fine Art majoring in painting. He has exhibited widely in Malaysia and Singapore in various solo and group exhibitions. In 2007,he was the Artist-In-Residence at TAKSU, Kuala Lumpur and was awarded the 2008 Malaysia-Australia Visual Artist Residency at Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia.

His new body of works examines the connection between existence, religion, politics and its relation in our contemporary social context. Using painting as a medium, Justin’s residency exhibition entitled Gods, Heroes & Myths represents and questions the human capability to distort the truth. Inspired and conceived between the 50th Merdeka celebrations and the 12th Malaysian General Elections, Justin uses random people and fictional characters to question various events surrounding the nation and people’s perception towards them. In relation, the works also explore subjects like manipulation, power and religion.

About the Work: Some Thoughts on Gods, Heroes and Myths

For Justin Lim’s third and latest solo exhibition, figures have literally come to the fore. In fact, they loom large on the canvasses. The interest in figuration is not a recent or sudden one. His formal training in figuration could be traced to when he was studying visual and digital arts in Malaysia from 2001 to 2003.1 This was later overshadowed by his interest in abstraction when he pursued his fine arts degree in Singapore from 2006 to 2006.

However, when Lim returned to Malaysia in 2007, he was caught up by what was happening around him, especially the political and social events of the time such as murder scandals2, the 50th Merdeka Celebrations3, the HINDRAF controversy4and the 12th Malaysian General Elections. The latter proved to be particularly momentous as popular dissatisfaction led to the loss of the ruling party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority as well as five states to the opposition. Lim recalled the almost ‘festive’ air during the election period when his neighbourhood was festooned with posters and banners, and the gripping political drama was the topic of constant conversation. This was also a period when Lim was questioning the reality of the ‘festivity’. Issues such as the role of religion, the influence of social structures and conditioning, and the relationship between power and truth were pondered upon. How much autonomy do we really have in life?  And how do we relate to and perceive the people around us? This then led Lim to reflect on the political and social changes occurring in his midst. What is the relationship between power and politics, race and religion? How does the mass media influence public perception? How much should we believe of what we read? Can we really trust what we see? And how does one make sense of this paradoxical, topsy-turvey world that we live in?

Questions like these are explored through the use of figuration in Lim’s new works. In the case of the largest painting Gods, Heroes and Myths, the figures press upon the viewer, popping to life from a pristine flat background. Using the parade of characters, Justin highlights a number of ambivalences and paradoxes. Sumo and American wrestlers are a source of entertainment but are also treated as heroes by many in their home countries. So, how seriously should they be taken by us? Two other figures strike dance-like poses with eyes half-closed. Are they dancing or going into some sort of trance – one is never quite sure. There is a man sporting a Mohawk haircut and punk clothing. As an icon of anti-establishment counterculture, he takes silent aim at the central figure in the picture. A butcher, with knife in hand, who stands amidst hanging carcasses, looks at the viewer quizzically.  He wears a white rounded cap, usually associated with the taqiyah worn by Muslim men. How do we regard this enigmatic character? In an age when terrorism-driven fears have exacerbated irrational exaggerations and stereotyping, where is the place for truth and tolerance? In the work Animal Farm, Lim takes inspiration from the book by George Orwell, a cautionary tale about power and corruption. Featuring a line-up of animal carcasses stripped of all marks of identity, the painting seems to be reminding us that regardless of our desires, convictions and achievements, this is the ultimate destiny for everyone – to become mere remnants of anonymous flesh, nothing more, nothing less.

The notorious murder of a Mongolian woman with its lurid headlines of a gruesome murder using explosives, allegations over a shady purchase of submarines, and the involvement of the police and prominent political individuals, had transfixed the public for much of late 2006 and 2007.5 In addition, the turmoil on the international front, ranging from Gulf War to the oil crisis, provided much food for thought. The use of ghosts as a metaphor by Lim is an interesting one. Ghosts are said to haunt the living, just as the excesses of Malaysian politics continue to make their presence felt throughout the past 50 years.6 Ghosts are also sometimes regarded as the repositories of our irrational fears and suspicions. One characteristic of Malaysian politics has been the periodic resurrection of the so-called ‘bogeyman’. Referring to a terrifying spectre used as a threat to misbehaving children, politicians often resort to racial issues to incite popular unease or unrest within a particular ethnic community, thereby manipulating them to behave in ways which have not been helpful in fostering greater trust and understanding within a plural society like Malaysia.7 Lim has, though his canvases, created a disturbing world where ghosts such as the Toyol (slave ghost used for stealing money), Hantu Air (water ghost), Hantu Tetek (breast ghost) and Orang Minyak (oil man) collide with the submarines, warplanes, suited businessmen, petroleum kiosks and hand grenades from our  world. The atmosphere evoked in these works is certainly nightmarish and unreal, but is it any worse than the times which we live in?

Lim is an artist who has always been curious to question and investigate the world around him. As his personal circumstances changed, so did his field of exploration, and the means of his investigation also varied accordingly. The forms may be different but his investigative and creative spirit remains the same.

Low Sze Wee (Assistant Director – Curation & Collection) Singapore Art Museum

1 Interviews with artist on 6 June and 27 December 2008.

2 This refers to the trial of a political analyst over the murder of Mongolian woman in October 2006. The case became a political scandal because the defendant had close ties to the governing party as well as Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

3 This refers to a series of private and public activities which celebrated Malaysia’s 50th Independence Day in 2007.

4 HINDRAF refers to the ‘Hindu Rights Action Force’ – a coalition of non-governmental Hindu organisations – which had initiated protests and rallies to preserve their community rights in late 2007. These later led to several arrests and detentions without trial by the government.

5 This refers to the same scandal mentioned in footnote 2.

6Malaysia was ranked the 47th out of 180 countries in the 2008 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. This was said to be its worst performance since the ranking was introduced in 1995. (refer to http://www.transparency.org/news_room/in_focus/2008/cpi2008/cpi_2008_table and http://limkitsiang.com/archive/2008/sep08/lks4912.htm )

7There are numerous references to ‘bogeyman’ in Malaysian popular literature such as Internet blogs. (refer tohttp://educationmalaysia.blogspot.com/2006/09/bogeyman-politics.html andhttp://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/hrfeatures/HRF70.htm  where the education system and the Internal Security Act are respectively referred to as the ‘bogeyman’.)