Interview: Kim Lim's 'Sculpting Light', by Alex Turnbull

A pioneer of sculpture, introducing line, light and weightlesness, Kim Lim's artworks return to her native Singapore for the first time in over 30 years, as told by her son, Alex Turnbull.

Interview: Kim Lim's 'Sculpting Light', by Alex Turnbull

What can you tell us about this latest exhibition of Kim Lim’s work, Sculpting Light?

This show has been in the pipeline since I first met Emi Eu from STPI four years ago.

The show is a comprehensive survey of Kim Lim’s prints augmented by sculpture, sketches and studies. Generally, STPI’s policy is to work only with living artists, but once Eu looked further into Lim’s work, she felt it was very important to make a show happen and for Kim’s work to be shown in Singapore. They have done a beautiful job.  

This exhibition will mark the first time Lim’s work has been shown in Singapore in three decades. Is this an exciting moment for you as the estate?

It’s been genuinely moving. My brother Johnny and I went over to Singapore for the opening and to give a talk. It’s very special to see her finally getting the long overdue recognition her work so deserves in her country of birth. The National Galleries of Singapore also recently acquired 10 large works which were not displayed this time.

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Where do you think her artistic abilities and desire to become an artist first came from?

I wish I had the opportunity to ask her that very question. Interestingly, both my parents grew up in environments where there was very little, if no, art. My father William Turnbull in the shipyards in Dundee in the 20’s and my mother in Singapore in the shadow of the 2nd World War.

What I can say is that it was quite something for a 17-year old girl from a good family (her father was a magistrate) to manage to convince her parents to allow her to go to London to study art. This was in the early 50s and I think this act speaks volumes about her desire to become an artist. There was a slight misconception that, because she left Singapore, she somehow wasn’t Singaporean. Quite the contrary. Growing up we were always deeply aware of our Asian roots, perhaps even more so than our Scottish side. The reality was that my mother would have been unable to pursue the idea of being an artist had she remained in Singapore during this period.

Kim Lim’s iconic silhouettes – formed in paper, wood and stone - embody a sense of weightlessness. Why do you think this essence is so inherent in her work?

She was like that as a person. It’s not weightlessness as in ‘no substance’, quite the opposite. She had a quiet strength and determination which I really saw after her back operation in 1990. It was a serious op and the first thing she did after was to carve a three-quarter ton of marble all by herself. It’s really as much about fluidity and flow as it is about substance. The very nature of the material, particularly once she worked with stone, allowed her work to have a contrast between soft and hard, yin and yang.

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A focal point of the exhibition explores how Lim treated paper and sculpture as one and the same; how does the curation express this?

It’s a very big space and the STPI curator Tessa Chung has done an amazing job using the prints as a narrative, augmented by other 3-dimensional works and studies, to examine the artist’s use of light and space. I think it was a 2-way process; sometimes markings from prints would inspire sculptures but I’m sure the process also happened in reverse, with the carvings informing the print making process itself. When you see the intricately carved wooden print screens which form part of the show, you realise quite how much work went into making them.

Do you have a favourite piece from the exhibition?

It’s hard to say. With very few exceptions, I love all her work.

I love the A,B,C set of prints and also Fragments, which is owned by a Singaporean collector so this was the first time I’ve seen it in over 20 years.

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As an estate, what do you see as the greatest benefits of having your parents’ work, Kim Lim’s and William Turnbull’s, on Artimage?

An estate’s responsibility is to try its best to keep the artist in the public eye without selling out or misrepresenting them. This sounds easy but in practice it’s quite a balancing act. DACS  have always been incredibly helpful in helping us best represent the interests of the Kim Lim and now, through Artimage, we and the public have access to a fantastic image bank of Kim Lim’s works.

Do you think William Turnbull’s art influenced that of Kim Lim’s, and vice versa, or were each their own artistic entity?

Although they worked very separately and never collaborated on works together, I have absolutely no doubt that they both had a huge but understated impact on each other’s work. They both had very clear ideas about themselves as artists before they met, and they both stayed close and true to this vison throughout their lives, but I can see a how they influenced each other, in very subtle ways.

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Lim is regarded as a pioneer in sculpture, working at the convergence of Western and Eastern modes of thought. Where did her inspiration come from, and was she aware of the high regards in which the art world held her?

She was the most modest and unassuming person you could meet. Not that she was soft or weak but she was extremely gentle and friendly. The first show Sir Nicholas Serota ever did back when he was a student at Oxford was of Kim Lim’s prints. She was highly regarded amongst her peers but it’s important to remember how small the art scene was back then. The general public had no interest in art, in fact quite the opposite, there was general distain and sense that it was a complete waste of time.

It is quite possible, also, that she may have been overshadowed sometimes by being married to Turnbull who was such a prominent figure at this time, as well as the fact that she was a woman and of Chinese descent, something which didn’t really fit the profile. But Bill held her in very high regard and in fact once told me she was the best artist he knew.


View more images by Kim Lim or browse below:

Dua Huang, 1986
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River Run, 1992-93

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Ladder Series Silver-Beige, 1975

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Ring, 1972

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Kim Lim: Sculpting Light
is on at STPI, Singapore until 3 March, 2018.

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Images from top: Caryatid, 1987; Padma 1, 1983; Time Shift, 1993; Dua Huang, 1986; River Run, 1992-93; Ladder Series Silver-Beige, 1975; Ring, 1972. All artwork images © Estate of Kim Lim. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018. All exhibition images © Toni Cuhadi. Courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.