JASON LIM, Last Drop, 2005, Performance at “Vital 07: The Essence of performance,” Manchester, 2007. Photo by Nisa Ojalvo. Courtesy the artist. 

Lee Wen on Jason Lim

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I began to call Jason Lim “the last samurai” after an impressive rendition of his performance piece Last Drop (2005) at “Vital 07: The Essence of Performance,” a live art festival held in Manchester in 2007. His cool, focused concentration was something I’d never seen in him before and it was quite extraordinary. Amazingly, it was also during a phase when he was going through an accumulation of troubled relationships, their effects rippling out into other areas of his life and pushing him close to self-destruction. In spite of the internal turmoil, and in contrast to earlier works, this new performance showed such calmness and focus, as if he were seeking a release from the chaos, and perhaps also a miraculous balance.

Lim is another son of Singapore, a notoriously authoritarian, socially engineered society of the repressed. Hence, not only is he a cool samurai, but also one with a bitter heart emerging from that of “Sim Jia Core” (心加苦)—a phrase meaning “heart so bitter” in the Hokkien dialect, yet which sounds like “Singapore” in Mandarin. From 2007 on, I found Lim’s performances showed a steady confidence that imbibed a web of tensions, like those of a samurai in a duel, making deadly swings with his katana (Japanese sword). His youthful angst contrasted with an evolving maturity that has mellowed his actions into focused grace and dance. It is as though, instead of attacking the enemy, he has come to a place of acceptance, like that moment when we discover that we have become old. 

Performances can be acts of self-transformation. The ability to overcome pain or difficult ordeals can create pathways, gateways or even thresholds toward one’s own zone of freedom. Such performances come across as convivial attempts to beget a sweet wine, fermented from the bitterness of already acknowledged defeat, snubbing the suffering failures of purists, uncompromising idealists and insomniac dreamers. 

The samurais were retainers of the nobility during earlier times in Japan. Disciplined and skilled in precise actions, their training was based on perfecting the moves of the katana to fatally strike the enemy. Of course Lim does not strike to kill, but he does become his own enemy in his performances by putting himself in circumstances in which he is surrounded by fewer and fewer props and clutter. He seems to be in search of a cathartic release from the chaos that he has choreographed in his performances. Increasingly, his works tend toward an emphasis on longer durations, allowing the mind and body to connect with the process. 

It would require far more research in order to fulfill my desire to explore contrasts with Lim’s earlier work. In fact, I do not intend to do that here but instead want to revisit one of the chaotic and spontaneous interventions of his earlier days. It was during the heyday of experimentation, when the youthful follies that he had frivolously abandoned started to trouble his inner doubts, bringing out hidden treasures that are only now being appreciated. 

I recall that this last spilling of anger led Lim to climb on the scaffolding that I had built for “Artists Investigating Monuments” (AIM), a project organized in Singapore by Kai Lam and the Post-Ulu generation of The Artists Village in 2000. It was at the landing place of Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), who colonized Singapore for the British. My original ideas were either to dismantle the statue of Raffles, a colonial symbol, and bring it down to ground level, or to elevate our emancipation from the former imperial ruler by constructing a platform that would bring people up to the statue, close enough to touch.

In the end, the authorities did not allow the construction of the platform to be so close to the statue. We had to put the structure at least three meters away. I was a little upset but decided to go ahead with this much-reduced form. I had an enjoyable day inviting people to go on top of the platform and have their photographs taken with Raffles behind them—they were at least at eye level with the statue. However, it was Lim’s intervention that nearly stole the show. He threw his rubber flip-flops at the statue and, in Hokkien dialect, gave a loud shout, swearing at the statue of Raffles, like a coolie run amok. That act brought full justice to the critically censored AIM structure—Lim’s words spoke for those who were ostracized, desperate and unrepresented.

The last samurai may not again act in such a rash and spontaneous way, but hopefully his quiet exuberance may still be loudly critical when necessary.