Installation view of “Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)” at Gajah Gallery, Singapore. Courtesy Gajah Gallery. 

Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)

Jason Lim

Gajah Gallery

Performance art in Singapore has endured a precarious history. In 1994, the government imposed a no-funding ban on the practice as a result of Josef Ng’s performance Brother Cane (1993) at Artists’ General Assembly, an arts festival co-organized by the Artists Village and the now-defunct artists’ initiative 5th Passage. Funding restrictions against performance art and theatre were eventually lifted in 2003, sparking a resurgence of the art form as evident in “Future of Imagination,” a more-or-less annual international performance art event now in its ninth iteration, and “R.I.T.E.S.–Rooted in the Ephemeral Speak,” a performance and sound-art event that ran from 2009 through 2013. Of course, other performance art-related activities have taken place in Singapore and the genre’s position has been steadily engrained in Singapore contemporary art through museum shows such as Singapore Art Museum’s “Singapore Contemporary Artists Series,” begun in 2010, which has featured Vincent Leow, Amanda Heng and Lee Wen, pioneering figures from the late 1980s to early 1990s. 

Only recently has performance art broken through to the commercial sector, a welcomed emergence for the art form given that mainstream visibility for these artists was long overdue, not only for their performance works, but for their other disciplines as well. Lee Wen, for instance, made his gallery debut with iPreciation, which brought him to Art Basel Hong Kong in May, while Zai Kuning made his first appearance with a show at Ota Fine Arts in Singapore this past June.

Installation view of “Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)” at Gajah Gallery, Singapore. Courtesy Gajah Gallery. 

JASON LIM and NG SIEW KUANThree Tonnes of Clay, 1995, at The Substation, Singapore, 1995. Part of installation for “Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)” at Gajah Gallery, Singapore, 2015. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific. Courtesy Gajah Gallery. 

Jason Lim, an enduring figure in the local and international art community, and Singapore’s representative at the 2007 Venice Biennale, was the latest addition to this roster with his recent exhibition “Tempus Fugit (Time Flies),” organized by independent curator Daniela Beltrani, at Gajah Gallery in Singapore. Lim’s career is two-fold: he is both a respected ceramist and a performance artist. In the gallery circuit, however, Lim has gained a stronger following for his ceramics, so the first survey of his performance art practice in this setting was highly anticipated. 

“Tempus Fugit” looked back on 20 years of Lim’s performances, from 1994 to the present, broken down into two sections: a timeline that chronicle his performances, and “fine art photography” which extracts some of the “powerful imagery”—as described in the exhibition catalogue—from his performances. 

Organized on the walls of a smaller room adjacent to the main exhibition space was a collation of materials—ranging from news clippings, posters and exhibition brochures to invitation cards, photographs and post-performance objects—that document Lim’s early practice, starting with his years teaching at LaSalle College of Arts in Singapore (1992–97). His first performance, Threatening Pose, Posing Threat (1994) explored varying ways in which our perceptions of others are derived through appearance and words. A year later, at The Substation art space, Lim would produce the seminal performance Three Tonnes of Clay (1995) with fellow ceramist Ng Siew Kuan, which filled the entire gallery with unfired clay that allowed the artists and audience to mold and transform the space.

Further contextualizing Lim’s practice within the larger contemporary art landscape in Singapore were news clippings from The Straits Times and Business Time, which reported on National Art Council’s reinstatement of funding for performance art and theatre. Continuing on to the opposite wall were mentions of Lim’s more recent work, with posters and exhibition materials showing his collaborations with the multinational performance art collective Black Market International and the exhibition announcement of his work Still/Life, which he began in 2009 and whose latest version was shown ats Equator Art Projects, Singapore, in 2013. The timeline concludes with a shelf of resource material and exhibition catalogues that provide further information on the different events and performances mentioned. 

JASON LIM, Duet Thread, 2010, giclee print on photo cotton rag, 76 × 114 cm. Performed in Solo, Indonesia. Courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery, Singapore. 

JASON LIMLast Drop #41, 2011, giclee print on photo cotton rag, 76 × 114 cm. Performed in Seoul. Courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery, Singapore. 

JASON LIMLast Drop #41, 2011, giclee print on photo cotton rag, 76 × 114 cm. Performed in Seoul. Courtesy the artist and Gajah Gallery, Singapore. 

After the overview of Lim’s practice, one moved into the main exhibition space where photographs depicting selected moments from two of his most well known performances—the “Duet” series and Last Drop, both of which are ongoing works that were initiated in the early 2000s. Lim’s works from this period have been coined “meditative,” as the artist has focused on repetition, slowing down his actions and being more in tune with time and space.

This photography section projected Lim’s own beliefs that “in every performance, the artist is concerned with the image created,” and that, for him, performance is a way to “create three-dimensional images.” In this manner, the photographs shown here became an entry point into viewing his performance works. Enlarged and framed, these performance photographs became artworks in themselves—“fine art” photographs beautifully composed, capturing the tensions between Lim himself, his movements and his props, which tend to include water, candles, glass and thread. One set of photographs of Last Drop #41 (2011), performed at the 2009 Performance Art Network in Seoul, captures his actions with water, which was poured in glass cups and carafes, illuminating the fragility of the glass material when it shatters.

However captivating the images were, one couldn’t help feeling confused about the connection between the timeline and Lim’s photographs. The timeline, which set the scene for the performances, led one to want to see the the actual performance, or a documentary video of the works. One video on display in the timeline room showed Lim’s performance during the exhibition opening, but the photographs themselves needed more context. While the intention behind Lim’s shift from performance documentation to fine art photography is evident, and brought a different perspective into looking at his works, there still needed to be more emphasis on Lim’s actual performances to bridge the exhibition’s two sections.

Despite this issue, “Tempus Fugit” illustrated to a new gallery audience that, along with his reputation in ceramic work, Lim has been a steady presence in the performance art scene over the past 20 years. During this time, Lim’s practice has transformed and been refined, leading one to remain curious of his performances to come.

“Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)” was on view at Gajah Gallery, Singapore, from August 22 to September 5, 2014. 

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.