Hannah Lim’s Sculpture Is Decolonising Chinoiserie

From #11 The Art Issue, Sophie Coldicott meets the Edinburgh-based artist whose sculptures ask us to imagine the future by interrogating the past.

This article was originally published in BRICKS #11, The Art Issue. To order a copy of the issue featuring cover stars Eartheater, Tove Lo, Gab Bois and Sage Flowers, visit our shop.

24-year-old artist Hannah Lim’s sculpture appears, at a glimpse, as if it does not belong in the twenty-first century. Aesthetically rooted in the ornate designs of mid-Eighteenth century ceramics and furniture, Lim’s work not only appears to be deeply historical, but also makes considered use of the history it is inspired by. Only upon further scrutiny does Lim’s work announce itself as something different – with a lexicon of personal symbols rendered in an electric palette of flame-reds, cyans, and fuchsias, her sculptures assert that their provenance is, instead, of a history of Lim’s own making.

As Lim and I talk over the phone, she is visiting a studio in Edinburgh where she is developing a selection of prints with Edinburgh Printmakers for an upcoming solo exhibition. Whilst Lim continues to work across artistic disciplines, exploring photography, painting, and drawing in her practice – something that she’s also been spending more time working on recently – sculpture is the medium that has always felt most natural to her. “I found that making three-dimensional things suited me more, and I was more comfortable with making physical objects – that came to me more easily.”

Despite this, Lim was never certain if she wanted to pursue art – she was also partial to philosophy and maths, the subject taught by her mother at a local secondary school. After completing a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at Central Saint Martins, Lim continued to the University of Edinburgh, where she studied BA Sculpture. “I’m the kind of person that once I’ve made a decision in one direction, I don’t go back on it”, she laughs. Following her undergraduate degree with a Masters in Fine Art at the University of Oxford, Lim has received many accolades including the Bloomberg New Contemporaries award (2021) and a commission by the Tate for Women’s History Month (2021), which she highlights as a particular achievement.

Of dual Singaporean and British heritage, Lim has a complicated relationship with her identity: “Having grown up in the UK, my Chinese and Singaporean heritage has felt both familiar, yet also distant,” she shares. As a result, Lim has continually found herself gravitating to the subject of identity and culture in her art. “Most of the work I’ve made over the last five years has been a way for me to explore my cultural identity, so many of my sculptures document this personal journey, often incorporating elements from different points in my research.”

It was during the second year of her undergraduate degree that Lim’s research brought her to Chinoiserie, a European style of art and design most popular in England and France from 1750 and 1765. Ranging from small porcelain goods to furniture, Chinoiserie captured an Orientalist vision of the ‘East’ for European consumer markets, creating an appropriative and colonial vision of Chinese aesthetics that expressed Western imperial dominance.

“It was, in a weird way, a visual representation of these two cultural parts that made me, combining elements of British design and Chinese design,” Lim explains. Whilst Lim doesn’t necessarily seek to recreate Chinoiserie, she utilises the aesthetic as a basis for her revisionist history redressing the balance between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in her work so that “cultural designs are shared” rather than appropriated: “it is no longer about one culture being moulded to the demands of another,” she explains, but an equal-footed dialogue.

Early critical reading – an essential component of Lim’s creative process – led her to Edward Said’s Orientalism, a critique of depictions of the ‘Orient’ in the Western artistic canon. Orientalism, in particular, establishes the colonial purpose of Orientalist art as creating an aesthetic counterbalance to the ‘West’, an oppositional process of ‘othering’ in part achieved by the extreme emphasis on ornament in Chinoiserie, situated in contrast to perceived ‘superior’ Western rationality.

Most of the work I’ve made over the last five years has been a way for me to explore my cultural identity, so many of my sculptures document this personal journey, often incorporating elements from different points in my research.

Hannah Lim

Lim has a natural affinity for ornament – “I’ve always used the word ornamental to describe my work” – but now, this is a quality she consciously embraces. Her works are highly detailed, using polymer clay that supports the intricate work required to construct her sculptural forms. “I’ve started to consider whether the over ‘ornamentalisation’ or flamboyance of my work has become a way for me to instead push against fixed notions of identity and race that are often a point of confusion and struggle for those who are from mixed backgrounds,” Lim adds.

It is through her exploration of ornament that Lim also hones her critique on the racialisation of South East Asian women. After coming across Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism in an article she read, Lim found her work resonated with Cheng’s feminist theory for East Asian and South East Asian womanhood. Ornamentalism expands upon Said’s thesis to directly associate ‘ornament’ with the ‘orient’ – Cheng makes note of the audible similarity between the two words – to forge a theory connecting these two concepts and the categorisation of South East Asian women via association with “ornamental imagery, language and ideas.”

This relationship has been of particular interest to Lim at current, and is a text she considers to be “in conversation” with her sculptures – Lim highlights a chapter of Ornamentalism in which Cheng explores the material relationship between porcelain and Asian femininity. “It’s made me think about my relationship with ceramics,” Lim shares. “Understanding this idea of Ornamentalism made me consider and reflect on how my work has become an extension of myself, and whether the aesthetic qualities of my work may be a reflection on how I see myself as a woman of Chinese descent.”

At its heart, Lim’s sculpture is incredibly personal: “I don’t want to speak for other people with my work, I very much want it to be me sharing my ideas and experiences – and if that resonates with other people, that’s really amazing.” Her project is as much about family history and her personal journey of cultural reconnection as it is about politics. In her snuff bottle series, Lim often incorporates replicas of her grandmother’s jade pendant; another recurring motif in her work is the orchid, the Singaporean national flower.

Even in small details, like the papaya and dragonfruit crafted on her Lotus Snuff Bottle or the branding of her namesake chop, Lim’s presence, personality, and history as ‘maker’ is palpable, as is the intimacy she seeks to create between viewer and sculpture. In her snuff bottle series, hidden charms hang from their lids, suspended on handmade chains: an intentional detail to encourage a personal relationship with the object, says Lim.

Indeed, it is through this alchemy of histories both global and personal that Lim articulates an alternative vision of the past with such great socio-political potential. Against this context, Lim’s use of colour is illuminated for its dual cultural and political significance – not only is her bright palette chosen for its specific “cultural connotations”, (“flame-red”, for instance, reoccurs in many of the Chinese texts Lim has been reading), but also for the political meaning it communicates. Recent research has led Lim to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, a work charting the West’s rejection of colour and its association with ornament: “I think even more so now, I’ve wanted to embrace colour and all of its cultural complexities within my work.”

I think even more so now, I’ve wanted to embrace colour and all of its cultural complexities within my work.

Hannah Lim

It is Lim’s talent for what she calls “sculptural storytelling” that makes striking this balance so effective. In recent experimentation, this has been embodied through her response to the Chinese classical text the Classic of Mountains and Seas. A compilation of mythological tales with a rich menagerie of beasts, the text has informed Lim’s exploration of anthropomorphism, providing a foundation for the many creatures of Lim’s own creation.

In equal measure, Lim’s beasts also draw inspiration from European medieval bestiaries, found in illuminated manuscripts and rare books. Lim was surprised by the cross-cultural frequency of certain symbols: the dragon, the lion, the eagle. Whilst often invoking very different meanings, Lim found that “there’s something intriguing about this shared desire to understand and give meaning to these real and imagined ‘beasts’ that features in both texts.” The culmination of this research was Lim’s Altarpiece of Beasts (2022); a striking blue and red shelf-like structure supporting two smaller snuff bottles that was shown at her MFA degree show earlier this year.

These creaturely elements often spill out beyond embellishment in Lim’s work – take, for instance, the pairs of human and animal arms, legs and eyes that erupt from many sculptures in Lim’s oeuvre, or the “ball and claw” inspired lion’s feet supporting her Mountain and Seas Snuff Bottle (2021) that threaten to scuttle away at any moment. Lim’s furniture, bearing names such as Hanging Spider and Shards of Fire, is also highly fantastical, playing with the boundaries between function and ornament: “I wanted these works to seem to have a life of their own.”

Lim now works from her studio in Bow, a short cycle down the canal from her flat in East London. Despite graduating three short months ago, she’s been looking forward to some major projects – later this year, her work will be exhibited in duo shows in New York and Milan. Nonetheless, Lim’s work continues to evolve, and a year-long residency with sculpture gallery Pangolin London promises new developments in her work. “I would like to try quite a few different things – I haven’t decided for definite, but I would like to cast something in bronze, and try out some patination…I think I’d also like to try out some plasma cutting in metal, as that fits with the rest of my work quite well. I’m kind of open to everything.”

Visit Hannah Lim: The Tiger’s Eye 25th November 2022 – 21st January 2023 at Huxley-Parlour, 45 Maddox Street, W1S, 2PE.

<strong>Sophie Coldicott</strong>
Sophie Coldicott

Sophie is a freelance journalist working in creative strategy and digital media, specialising in the arts and culture sector. She’s an award-winning fashion and culture writer, holding senior editorial roles and bylines in i-D magazine, The Tab, and more. Sophie has been a BRICKS contributor since 2020.

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