Wilfred Lim: Happy on the Outside

© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #01’ [detail] 2014

Our culture, memories, sense of belonging were being slaughtered in the process of this massive demolition.

Introduction

In a consumer society, happiness is a duty. To be less than happy is a form of failure, deemed pathological or simply self-indulgent. Consumption is the answer, always new things… the old, unless it has itself be commoditised as cultural spectacle, historical entertainment, or tourist experience has little value, best swept away amid the waves of new. The permanence of things past melts and the seas of forgetting rise around us.

For the artist, Wilfred Lim, the tension between the dictum of happiness and recognition of what is being lost is played out in an ongoing internal dialogue that speaks with mute eloquence through his images. He grew up in the Malaysian fishing village of Pengerang and now lives in the hyperreal metropolis of Singapore. Two different worlds, with different speeds, different values, yet Pengerang is just a few short kilometres across the Johore Strait from Changi Airport. With such proximity, it is perhaps inevitable that the village and its environs should fall prey to industrial development, in this case a massive oil refinery built on land scraped clean of it past and its people.

Through his photo-performances, Wilfred Lim attests to the destruction of his community, its history and its culture, mourning the loss of its collective soul. Later, in works made during the Covid-19 lockdown, he contrasts his own sense of impotent frustration with the remarkable re-naturing of Singapore as flowers bloom and insects and birds return to streets devoid of people.

These are not objective documents of an external reality. On the surface they appear almost whimsical, expressed with the childlike clarity of Alice perplexed by the behaviour of the adults in Wonderland. But these are carefully encoded commentaries on real political and environmental struggles in Malaysia today. They speak in the first person, envisioning psychological narratives that echo on after a community has been erased, and a hyperreal city-state was momentarily re-wilded. Looking beneath the cheerful veneer of consumerism, Wilfred Lim points to a deepening void as ageless timbers are systematically eaten away.

Alasdair Foster


© Wilfred Lim ‘Let Me Speak’ 2013 from the series ‘Self-Portraits’

Interview

When did you begin making photographs?

I have always been very interested in drawing and painting. At school, the art-and-craft class was the time I looked forward to most. I took an oil painting course when I was university. I came to realise two things: I am deeply in love with painting, and I am not very good at it. So I began making photographs. I had wanted to paint expressive, whimsical pictures; photography has allowed me to ‘paint’ my wildest ideas in a form of reality.

You were born in Malaysia, have Chinese heritage, and now live in Singapore. Do you draw on those different heritages, cultures and places in your work?

I do. A lot, actually.

© Wilfred Lim ‘Superhero’ 2013 from the series ‘Self-Portraits’

For the first six years of my art practice I made all my work in my home town of Pengerang [a fishing village in the south-eastern tip of Malaysia]. I was living in Singapore at the time and wanted to present something visually very different from my peers. I love my village and I feel a deep connection to it. I wanted to evoke memories and recall life experiences: the sound of waves at the beach, the aroma of my mom’s cooking, the colours of traditional houses along the roadside… They bring me a sense of belonging that will be forever engraved on my heart.

But I am also of Chinese descent, and have included a lot of Chinese references in my work, such as a lion dance costume, and a red plastic bathtub decorated with the double happiness design traditionally displayed at Chinese weddings.

How did the series ‘Self-Portraits’ begin?

I started this series in April 2012; a big oil refinery project had just started. It was quite a chaotic time back then. There were major protests, internal conflicts within the anti-oil-refinery project committee, national discussions on how this project will impact the environment…

The announcement of the oil refinery project filled me with rage and this series speaks (metaphorically) about a range of specific issues and events. I drew inspiration from the news, from things the villagers told me, and from my own emotional response to what was happening.

Who is your young friend – your alter-ego – in these images?

He represents the child who lives inside my mind. I am not sure I would call him an ‘alter-ego’; he is my younger self, my memory vault. I am someone who goes through internal conversations on a daily basis. It may sound a bit crazy, but I am trying to visualise these two versions of me having those conversations as I try to understand things. Sometimes it is me with a more adult self, sometimes with my younger self.

You have described these tableaux as being “heightened realities” that act as a kind of commentary on what is happening in your hometown. Can you give a couple of examples…

In October 2012, a mass of foam-like substance was swept onto the coast of Pengerang caused by seabed drilling prior to oil refinery construction. Someone commented on Facebook that members of Parliament should come to Pengerang for a bubble bath. So, I made a photograph of me taking a bubble-bath at the site where the foam had washed ashore.

Earlier that year, a group of villagers had come together to form an association to resist the environmental destruction being caused by the building of the oil refinery. A number of the committee members received anonymous threats as red paint was thrown over their cars and houses. I wanted to show in my photograph that, as one of the villagers myself, I will not bow to threats and am prepared to fight injustice.

© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #03’ 2014

The series ‘New House’ builds on your concerns about changes happening in Pengerang. First, can you set the scene for this work.

This was the year that the mass relocation began. Villagers were forced to move to a new housing area built by the government, shifting from traditional houses with land to poorly constructed terrace flats. The houses, schools and temples that held within them our rich history, culture and sense of identity were to be destroyed.

How did you express your feelings in your photographs?

I made a series of performance works in which I was trapped inside a tiny space. The government and the oil company were stripping the villagers of their home, their land, their history and culture, forcing them into cage-like accommodation in the name of ‘progress’. There were countless reports of the shoddy quality of this new housing, which began to fall apart almost as soon as the villages moved in.

I developed that idea of being trapped unnaturally in the work I made with goldfish. Here the fish are in water, but the space in which they live is just a tiny bowl. They can no longer swim freely in the pond around them.

There is a poignant image of you with your head on a block next to a chicken. How did that come about?

I was talking with my father about the whole relocation issue… and he said: “We are just like meat on the chopping board, helpless and waiting to be slaughtered.” It was a remark that really struck home for me. Our culture, memories, sense of belonging were being slaughtered in the process of this massive demolition.

You live in Singapore, and it was here that you spent the period of isolation required by the restrictions for COVID-19, Singapore’s ‘Circuit Breaker’. During this time you began work on your series entitled ‘State of Solitary’. How did that begin?

It was a difficult period. I lost my full-time job in early 2020, just before the Circuit Breaker began. Losing my income, unable to get freelance work, and being stuck at home all day drove me into a depression. I had anxiety attacks and could not sleep at night. I needed to create something in order to keep myself occupied.

© Wilfred Lim ‘State of Solitary #1–#6’ 2020

My first works were literally depictions of my state of mind. Restlessness, unease, anger, despair… I wanted to visualise something raw, a silent screaming that reflected my restless frustration.

In your work, you seem to be drawn to states of transition: a happy surface that masks an inner sadness; demolition that presages new building; the existential shift of death from being to not being… Is that an accurate observation?

Yes, that’s an extremely accurate observation. A friend once told me that I was “happy on the outside and sad on the inside”. I try to appear happy. I struggle to meet expectations, my own and those of society. It can be hard to keep afloat. When I feel myself nearing the abyss of despair I try to make colourful, cheerful images as a kind of emotional anchor.

Which brings us neatly to the next body of work you made during the Circuit Breaker lock-down.

I wanted to create images that would help me get through this period of isolation and uncertainty. I spent hours crafting these still lifes from scratch. The anchovies were glued onto the sprig of eucalyptus piece by piece… In the image with the chicken head, the flowers were made of garlic skins. Someone later suggested that it reminded him of the traditional Chinese depiction of the phoenix with peonies [symbols of harmony, wealth and rebirth]. So, maybe I was subconsciously drawing on my Chinese cultural heritage, without being aware of it.

I wanted these images to be a reminder of what is had been like during lock-down, after it was all over. I found all the materials used in this series at home or during the permitted ‘essential trips’ in my immediate neighbourhood to get food. For me, the tiny flower arrangement is the piece that best represents that crazy time. Wild flowers thrived and blossomed throughout Singapore because the lawns were not being mowed. Butterflies, bees, and moths returned to the neighbourhood, something I had never seen before in Singapore, it was surreal. I picked up the flowers during my trip to the supermarket and created this still life with a clamshell left over from my supper.

Do you know how audiences have responded to this work?

Actually, I do… I love to go to the gallery and blend into the crowd, observing the audience’s response. I think they are drawn to the colour and weirdness. They often discuss whether the images were digitally manipulated and usually conclude they have been Photoshopped. They haven’t, but I actually take it as a compliment!

© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #12’ 2014

People find all sorts of meanings in my work, not always what I myself had intended. I love that. Photography is traditionally regarded as a way of capturing external reality and therefore supposed to be unambiguous. What I like to do is to use photography to create visuals that are more about what is inside the mind, perhaps more like how paintings are created.

What have you learned through making photographs?

It was when I began seriously making art that I became aware of this conversation with myself… that I have in my head. Through art-making I have learned to face my fears by working through the past traumas that are the root of my perpetual sadness. Photography is a self-healing process I use to keep myself sane.

© Wilfred Lim ‘New House #10’ 2014

Biographical Notes

Wilfred Lim was born in Pengerang, Malaysia, in 1988. At the age of 17 he went to Singapore to study, receiving a Diploma in Digital Media from Singapore Polytechnic (2009) and Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Art, Design, and Media, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (2014). His work has featured in exhibitions in China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. He has won a number of accolades including a Noise Singapore Award, an International Photography Award, and an Invisible Photographer Asia Award. In 2019, he took Singaporean citizenship, and it is here that he now lives and works.


This interview is a Talking Pictures original.