Installation view of “William Lim/Fundamental: 40 Years of Design Inspiration from the East,” at Artistree, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy CL3, Hong Kong. 

William Lim/Fundamental: 40 Years of Design Inspiration from the East

Hong Kong

William Lim wears many hats. By day, the Hong Kong-born, United States-educated architect is managing director at CL3, his multidisciplinary design practice, whose clients have included big-name hotels and restaurants. In addition to his practice at CL3, which is based in Hong Kong, the 57-year-old is also an artist best known for such large-scale works as Ladders (2006), a monumental installation comprising a network of lacquered, neon-lit hand-tied bamboo ladders that span between two latticed walls. Ladders, which was initially presented at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, is now in the collection of Hong Kong’s M+. Lim’s other works—like Lantern Wonderland (2011), a 37-meter-long gargantuan bamboo fish crafted from thousands of traditional Chinese lanterns installed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park—have earned him recognition from critics and the public alike, not to mention a Guinness World Record (for “largest sculpture made out of lanterns”). But within the art world, Lim is perhaps best known for his personal collection of art by contemporary Hong Kong artists. He steadfastly acquired the then-emerging works of artists such as Lee Kit, Pak Sheung Chuen and Tsang Kin-Wah, after starting out with Chinese antiquities, which remain a major influence in his practice.

It is this multifaceted coexistence of passions and projects that Lim seeks to share in “William Lim/Fundamental: 40 Years of Design Inspiration from the East,” currently being held at Artistree, Hong Kong. The exhibition is an assemblage of four decades worth of his own work—including installations, paintings, sculptures and design pieces—alongside ephemera from his archive, as well as a selection of the art and collectibles he has been fervently acquiring since he was a student.

WILLIAM LIM, Starry Night, 2002, wood. Courtesy CL3, Hong Kong. 

Arranged in two parallel lines that stretch into the deep, dark gallery space are 17 works of art and design—some by Lim and others from his collection—which are placed opposite 12 glass cases mounted on wooden shipping crates, which house his archives. Their contents range from research photographs, studies, sketches and architectural models to more obscure, eccentric personal tokens, such as copies of Lim’s favorite books, a lacquer box purchased in Hong Kong in 1976, a ticket to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum from 2006, two cake molds picked up in Tokyo in 2012, sheets of antique stencil paper, Chinese scholarly rocks and a 1981 essay he published in The Cornell Journal of Architecture.

A glass case on “Chaos and Order in Bamboo Scaffolding” reveals much about the Lim’s favorite natural material, or what he has called the “hidden hero” of Hong Kong’s famous skyline. Sketches for Ladders and Route-D (2009), a bright-red bamboo creation that bridged two landmark Hong Kong buildings, inform our understanding of the works and Lim’s fascination with finding new ways of working with the quintessentially Chinese material. Studies and sketches for Lantern Wonderland provides a compelling backstory to Lim’s breakout public installation; though these assemblages would be all the more powerful if they were paired with images or film of the finished works themselves.

Lim reveals influences behind some of his commercial projects, too. Design lovers may be intrigued to discover that an image of pedestrian traffic patterns in a Song dynasty painting had guided Lim’s spatial approach to Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, or that CL3’s Times Clubhouse, a commercial and recreation center in Zhuhai with an intimidating metal exterior and bright interior, was inspired in part by a Chinese scholar’s rock.

In these displays, descriptive text interpreting the archival material is sorely missed. A signed copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1953 autobiography, and postcards featuring the Wright-designed Imperial Hotel Tokyo, reveal little about Lim’s youth, other than the fact that he, like most architecture students, admired the masters. Questions about how, when and why Wright’s work affected Lim are left unanswered.

Selections from Lim’s art collection, meanwhile, reveal the materials, forms, concepts and values that interest the artist, from Chinese ceramics and scholar’s rocks to a Japanese lacquer box to a massive, five-tiered Chinese bird cage made from rusted wire, which he uncovered in Wong Chuk Hang in 2013. Mixed in are several of Lim’s own designs, including a rectilinear, Wright-esque light fixture originally designed in 1986 and reproduced this year, as well as Starry Night (2002), a low-slung, lithe wooden lounger in the shape of a checkmark.

WILLIAM LIM, Drifting Pavilion, 2008, mixed-media installation. Courtesy CL3, Hong Kong. 

Deeper into the space are two large-scale works. One was Drifting Pavilion (2008), a series of interconnected folding screens made up of translucent envelopes and tied together with red yarn, was originally created for Dutch Design Week. A new work suspended from the ceiling, 3 Years of Searching for a Concept (2015), highlights Lim’s facility with scale through the installation’s ceiling-reaching circle of square paintings—depicting figures, objects and still lifes—that are stacked five meters tall. It curves around to embrace the viewer, bathed in light from an ornate traditional Chinese lantern that dangles in the center.

An introduction to the exhibition states that it seeks to reveal Lim’s vision, inspiration, personality and beliefs. “William Lim / Fundamental” succeeds in sharing his sources of inspiration and his personality—at the very least, we know that he is a compulsive chronicler of personal history and a bookworm—and opens a dialogue about his belief in amalgamating and appropriating ideas across geographical, cultural and temporal borders.

“William Lim / Fundamental,” however, does not just present a singular vision. Instead, in its curious, meandering way, the exhibition offers a wide-ranging smattering of dots that observers are encouraged to connect in myriad ways—and that seems to be the point. It reveals Lim’s whole-hearted embrace of a practice that openly and enthusiastically resists categorization.

WILLIAM LIM3 Years of Searching for a Concept, 2015, mixed-media installation. Courtesy CL3, Hong Kong. 

“William Lim / Fundamental: 40 Years of Design Inspiration from the East” is on view until September 27, 2015.

Siobhan Bent is Hong Kong desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific.