In conversation with Lim Wei-Ling
by Gina Fairley
How does one gauge integrity in this insane business we call the art world? Is that observable passion real – sincere – and how is it fuelled year after year against a global economic backdrop and trend-driven success blurring our constructs of ‘value’? Furthermore, how does a passage of a decade define the emergence of an art scene? They are very real questions within the climate of contemporary Asia art, a phenomenon that has swept the industry from China, to India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and yes, Malaysia.
I have been an itinerant participant in Malaysia’s art scene since 2005, and while some may argue that does not warrant a ‘local voice’ on the topic, I can be sure in my observations of how this ‘scene’ sits within a broader context of its regional neighbours. That peripatetic platform permits the necessary distance to gauge levels of maturity, professionalism, dexterity, confidence, and yes fashion. Within this sea, Wei-Ling Gallery has been a defining force in nurturing the development of Malaysian Art, both its presence at home and abroad. The gallery’s dedication to representing artists is a commitment far more sustaining, and ethically positioned, than mere commercial activities and it comes from an inherent understanding in the need for an artist to make, one that roots back to Lim Wei-Ling own practice as a painter.
The writer Sonya Dyer used the phrase, “Culture as a gateway to Capitalism” 1. to describe China’s burgeoning art market. While Malaysia is some steps behind such advances, it is undeniable, especially in recent years, that this sentiment has been embraced with a swag of ‘picture-shop’ galleries, tourism driven art events, fairs and auction houses staking their flag on this local territory. While it presents exciting times and a new visibility that brings with it opportunities for artists, it can also mark a perilous precipice where poor direction can stagnate an ill-defined art scene. In a nutshell, it is an intricately woven fabric and it can easily snag. Through the example of Wei-Ling Gallery, and a small handful of other dealers and discerning collectors, contemporary art practice has flourished and risen above such foils, engaging issues pertinent to Malaysia in this millennium. This is the art that is being noticed.
So then, how do we translate what we observe coming out of Malaysia today? When we look through the charter of artists that Wei-Ling Gallery has represented over the years, artists such as Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Umibaizurah Mahir, Anurendra Jegadeva, Ivan Lam , Chin Kong Yee, Yau Bee Ling, Nor Azizan Rahman Paiman, among others, they represent a new climate of artistic practice, one that pushes forward the ground broken by an earlier generation of artists including Zulkifli Yusoff and Yusof Ghani. Simply these artists have a commitment in their artwork that is deeply considered, probing, and true to itself, above all. It is an environment that has been nurtured by the gallery. The work of artists such as Choy Chun Wei, Hamidi Hadi, and Multhalib Musa offer a further clue, working against the overbearing “…presence of the figure [as] a cipher…upon which questions of culture and history can be fore-grounded”, 2. rather placing their practice firmly in the realm of experimentation and a unique individual expression. It is a brave position. To recall cultural theorist Irit Rogoff, “criticality is key to moving beyond existing frames of knowledge’s and allegiances.” 3
Many good projects, spaces and ideas come and go in this industry, however it is the ability to sustain and to grow that vision over a decade, and beyond, which signals a maturity that is observable from afar. It assures a confidence in Malaysian art. Adding to this, Wei-Ling Gallery has expanded its activities beyond the boundaries of Malaysia to include projects in Pakistan, India, China and Singapore (not to mention including foreign artists in its fold to stimulate local dialogue) charted with an openness that rises out of parochial nationalism and celebrates Malaysian artists equally on an international platform. Encouraging its artists to slow down, to think and to grow, the gallery has championed the importance of this dialogue and the visual mobility of Malaysian artists beyond mere commercial agendas. Lim Wei Ling and Yohan Rajan recognise the importance of that cultural lineage and legacy.
– Gina Fairley
1. Dyer, Sonya. (2008) “Why China Now?”, ctrl+p, Issue No. 11, March 08, pp 47. Philippines.
2. Soon, Simon (2008) “Returning to Painting as Painting”, catalogue essay Tukar Ganti, September, Retrieved www.vwfa.net/tukarganti/
3. Rogoff, Irit. (2003) From Criticism to Critique to Criticality, posted on European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/rogoff1/en Retrieved March 2012.
GF: Lets scratch the earliest beginnings, long before the gallery was conceived as I think it has a profound bearing on the gallery’s ethos. What was it like growing up surrounded by art and music, where your visual read of the world was shaped through your father’s eyes as one of the country’s most respected architects, Jimmy Lim, and a mother a professional violinist, Winnie Cheah-Lim. It was a relative unique position in Malaysia.
WL: When you are a child you absorb everything that your parents share with you, and one’s formation of taste and view of the world stems from that. Dad has always been outspoken and strong-willed about the preservation and conservation of heritage, staying true to his principles of sustainable architecture (when it wasn’t sexy!). In many ways he is what I would classify as a true artist for his individualistic outlook, regardless of what the repercussions may have been. This integrity and professionalism has kept him in good stead and it has definitely translated to the way I approach my life and the gallery.
GF: And your mum?
WL: As a professional musician, my brother and grew up accompanying mum to her practice, attending music recitals and having soirees at home. There was always some form of artistic expression around us, be it coming home to strains of Arensky wafting through the house or rearranging the furniture to fit ‘antiques’ that dad had picked up over the weekend!
We were not exposed to typical activities for children and spent weekends visiting architectural sites, hunting down antiques, attending exhibitions, or taking BBQs in the remote countryside. As a five year old I accompanied dad to Rome on his first visit there. Although I didn’t realize it then, that trip made an indelible impression on me. Being exposed to the monumentality of Rome, especially with dad’s reverence for its spatial elements, definitely left a mark on how my ‘eye’ has developed and formed – perhaps subconsciously, perhaps implicitly.
GF: So the artist was borne at five! There is an understanding that comes from practicing as an artist, one that sits outside the realm of ‘the art dealer’. How has yours informed the gallery?
WL: As an artist I understand that putting oneself out there is no easy task as you are opening yourself to all forms of criticism – both positive and negative – but I found that when I had put my best foot forward, I was undefeatable. One of the best parts of running the gallery is visiting my artists studios to see the development of the work. These visits normally entail having long discussions and it takes me back to art school. The value of dialogue is underrated here and yet it is vital for our growth as artists.
The making of work is always a struggle as the answers are nowhere to be found except within oneself. Artists are, and should only be answerable to themselves for it is armed with this consciousness that they are able to make works which are honest and will continue to develop and grow. This conviction and commitment is paramount, and the artists I work with share this ideal. The art comes first and foremost. The selling comes second to that. Not the other way around. This is the greatest foundation I have carried from being an artist myself to my activities as a gallery owner.
GF: I agree, that sincerity for making has to be ‘felt’ to be real and I think it is what sets certain galleries apart.
WL: I know that sometimes it is less demanding to go down the simple route and churn out [or show] works that are variations on an earlier popular theme as they are familiar – struggle free! It is a perilous place for an artist. They are no longer making works for themselves but are instead doing what works for others – their development is stunted. Balance is important.
GF: I understand you trained as a jewelry artist in Australia. What brought about that flip to the gallery?
WL: After returning to Malaysia and designing for a short while, I realized that designing commercial jewelry was not my forte. It was all about making money. Disillusioned I strayed into stock-broking around 1993. While it defined my life for the next ten years, the passion for art resurfaced, and stayed. I felt a great sense of freedom to be able to just paint.
My husband, Yohan encouraged me to put up an exhibition. And so my studio in Bukit Bandaraya became Townhouse Gallery and my first show “Botanica” launched the space in April 2002. While there was interest in my paintings, there was also interest in the space. Several local artists approached me and asked if I could represent them and it just snowballed.
GF: Yohan has been a part of this project from the start.
WL: He gave me the push. We were both instrumental, from renovating the space to sourcing artworks, to giving each other moral support. Although I run the gallery on a day-to-day basis now, Yohan is always there. He has been my rock over the last ten years and the silent (and not so silent) partner in this project.
GF: Speaking of those early days, how did Townhouse Galley take root, and what was it you wanted to achieve?
WL: To be frank, when I started Townhouse Gallery there was no real direction for the gallery. In fact I had no intention of showing the work of other artists at all! Townhouse Gallery was set up to showcase my own artworks. At that time, the early 2000s, there was a scarcity of art spaces in the country and artists were looking for alternatives to the few galleries that existed.
GF: At what point did you decide to allow your art making to slide to second chair?
WL: The gallery just sort of took over. After two shows in 2002, I had five in 2003, eight in 2004 and 11 in 2005. Townhouse Gallery had quickly become so much more than just me.
GF: The gallery, however, really defined itself when it moved to Brickfields as Wei-Ling Gallery in 2005. It was a bitter sweet milestone.
WL: Sometimes good things come out of adversity, although it is not always apparent at the time. When fire ravaged my father’s architectural practice in 2004 it was a huge blow. No one can understand the real meaning of the word disaster until they have lived through something as devastating as a fire. We spent weeks sifting through debris. Dad is a stickler for archiving and was an avid collector of all things that possess an aesthetic – antiques, books, artworks, furniture – you can only begin to imagine what he lost.
Dad was in Zanzibar judging an architectural competition and I had to break the news to him. He took a philosophical approach to it all. I remember in the midst of the salvage he said: “Wei come upstairs, I want to show you something”. I followed him to what was now a shell, three floors crashed and crushed below, exposed to the elements. He said, “Isn’t the sense of space incredible.” And that is how the gallery moved to Brickfields from Bangsar. Renaming it was difficult for me. But after much deliberation, I decided to do it to show my commitment to the gallery and the artists represented. In hindsight it was the best thing I could have done.
GF: That transformation of the building was a symbol of a new vision for the gallery – it solidified a future.
WL: For lack of a better phrase, it was like a phoenix rising out of the ashes. Dad embraced the rebuild. We wanted to retain the wonderful triple void, and that is why the mezzanines were created. He retained as much as he could of the burnt remnants, true to his ideals about conservation and not being able to change history. In doing so he turned the gallery into one of the most interesting spaces in K.L. To date it has seen close to 80 exhibitions pass and it never fails to surprise me. What has become more evident with time is that the space is an artwork in itself.
GF: To your credit the gallery has grown into one of the country’s most respected contemporary art venues. Do you feel a certain responsibility in that role of shaping and nurturing the development of Malaysian artistic practice?
WL: My commitment to the artists lies not only in promoting and selling their work but in my belief in them and their respective journeys. I would never represent an artist whose works I would not collect in a personal capacity. We look to artists who have reached beyond being purely technically savvy and found some level of intellectual maturity and have something to ‘say’ in their art. It is important for me to provide an environment for them to continue to grow, so that the art retains its integrity.
GF: Do you think the ambition and quality of the art scene has changed since you started out a decade ago?
WL: Absolutely! The scene has developed so much over the last decade and in so many positive ways. Of course there have been hiccups along the way, but I think that’s what makes the journey interesting. When I started everyone was struggling to make a living. Artists were literally living hand-to-mouth and, bar a few, most collectors were fairly conservative in the way they collected art. Values of artworks were ridiculously low for their quality. Thankfully with the introduction of a new breed of more discerning and daring collectors, like Aliya and Farouk Khan, Sek San and Dr Steve Wong, who went against the grain and started collecting art for art’s sake, the scene has changed and flourished. In fact it could be said that much of what the institutions should be collecting now falls into the hands of the private collectors.
GF: Have the attitudes of local artists followed suit?
WL: I believe that most artists start their careers with the intention of making art that is meaningful to them. However, over the years numerous commercial galleries have set up with the sole purpose of selling. These galleries encourage artists to repeat art works popular in the market, and eventually, the artist loses sight of who he/she is. Equally, a potential ‘collector’ will realize he/she has spent good money on something that is essentially worthless or overpriced – paintings that are no better than posters. Thankfully there are now a handful of galleries changing this modus operandi, and artists too have grown stronger in their sense of self and their originality. These are exciting times. Our artists are unafraid to express themselves and we like to think we help give them space for this freedom of expression through the gallery.
GF: ‘Value’ and ‘success’ are words thrown around too lightly today. How do we find truth in that sea?
WL: When an artist has put all their energy into an exhibition and has presented the very best work they could possibly do at that point – it is resolved and it is confident – then that equates to success. Such exhibitions are physically and emotionally energizing; it is palpable. Once you have that amazing body of work, everything else falls into place.
GF: As the gallery has matured, its activities have expanded outside the circle of Kuala Lumpur, firstly to Pakistan and later art fairs in China and Singapore, as well as showing in India.
WL: One of the main objectives of the gallery from the very beginning was to take Malaysian art to a more international audience as we felt that it had to be seen beyond the shores of the country. We have done this in various ways, but mainly through art fairs and cross-exchanges with galleries internationally, most successfully with Pakistan.
GF: Can you tell us about that relationship with Amin Gulgee Gallery in Pakistan and how it has evolved since that first exhibition in December 2006?
WL: I met the artist Amin Gulgee by chance during a visit to Karachi. It was definitely “meant to be”. Eight years on, we have done countless projects together including an exhibition of Amin’s at Galeri Petronas and his first solo exhibition in Singapore.
When I announced to the local art fraternity that I was taking an exhibition of Malaysian art to Karachi many turned their noses up and said it was a waste of time. Why not show somewhere more relevant like London or New York?
Thankfully I had the support of corporate sponsors like HSBC (Malaysia), MAS KARGO (Malaysia), International Industries Ltd (Pakistan), and Arif Habib Investments (Pakistan), who were able to share our vision of crossover exhibitions. They made it a reality. It also made me realize that it doesn’t matter where you show in the world as long as the exhibition is well publicised and you work with like-minded people who share a similar vision. Karachi, for many of our artists was a start to growing their careers outside Malaysia.
GF: You raise the gallery’s relationship with corporate sponsors, a bold new directive in Malaysia at that time. How has that grown over the life of the gallery?
WL: Corporate sponsorship is always a struggle to attain. When we first started the gallery it was difficult to even get corporations to look at art. Certainly in the last few years there has been a distinct interest in art as developers are beginning to realize that by supporting the arts they are setting themselves apart. It will be very interesting to see how these projects pan out over the next decade.
We have been fortunate and grateful for the sponsorship we have received over the years. Most have come in support of our publications as well as countless catalogues documenting individual artist’s careers. Exhibitions take months to plan and prepare – they happen and then they end. Without publications what else have we got to remember them by? These publications are already important points of reference, both locally and abroad.
GF: Speaking about expanding audiences, how were your artist’s works received in Pakistan?
WL: The reception to “18@8 KUL-KHI” was overwhelming as Amin (Gulgee) managed to draw important art critics, collectors, and artists, not to mention politicians and ten TV stations to the opening night. It was a mind-altering experience and triggered a desire to push deeper for that level of interest back in Malaysia.
I managed to meet with many of the local industry’s players. I think it was an eye-opener for them also as the market had never before been exposed to contemporary Malaysian or Southeast Asian art. I was proud to be the first to do so. We have since held exhibitions in other parts of the world, but the experience is no comparison to what we encountered in Pakistan.
GF: In April 2008 you experimented by taking your artists to the prestigious China International Gallery Expositions (CIGE) in Beijing, the first invited Malaysian gallery to participate.
WL: I went without any expectations how we would be received. The only thing I knew was that I would show Beijing the best of contemporary Malaysian art. It was actually our first time participating in an art fair and our first time visiting China. If I am not mistaken, it was also the first time that contemporary Malaysian art had been seen in China. The best part was the interest in, and curiosity why some of our artists had Chinese names yet were being shown by a Malaysian gallery.
GF: What was it like to be a dealer in the hot-house of China’s art market?
WL: It became apparent to me that in that setting (CIGE), the Chinese collectors were interested primarily in ‘designer’ artists whose names had some caché internationally or were already household names. The art was a status symbol above everything else. The higher an artwork’s price determined how ‘good’ it was in their eyes. I felt that it was not the best platform for us to be presenting Malaysian art because their focus was skewed in a different direction than my own.
GF: More successfully you showed Ivan Lam at the Inaugural Art Stage Singapore in 2011. It was a bold professional decision to show one artist. What shaped that decision?
WL: To be frank the organisers gave me that directive. We had a rousing reception in Singapore and a lot of interest in Ivan’s extraordinary works. We were proud to show him to an international platform.
GF: They were big works. As a regional writer it carried a confidence within that forum, which I think not only projected a certain position of the gallery’s maturity but also a confidence in contemporary Malaysian art.
WL: Yes, I have always believed in showing what we stand by and supporting our artists to show what they want. The sheer scale of Ivan’s works for “Together Alone” was daunting for all of us, but he needed to get them out of his system. We were pleased to open our new space, Wei-Ling Contemporary at The Gardens Mall, with their return exhibition – his most compelling and bravest show to date.
GF: The gallery’s relationship with Ivan Lam, for me, reiterates your position towards art patronage beyond mere representation. This relationship, however, is not exclusive to emerging talents. You have also enjoyed a long relationship with Zulkifli Yusoff rebalancing, if you like, the market’s passion for the young.
WL: We met Zul in 2007 and although we had seen his works at the National Art Gallery over the years, we had not been exposed to anything he had done in recently. I found it strange that an artist of his stature did not have a monograph documenting his journey. It was obvious to me that he needed representation. In fact Zul is one of the first ‘contemporary’ artists in this country for his pluralistic approach to his art, and we must fight against the market to give space also to those historic foundations. Thanks to the invaluable support of United Overseas Bank we were able to publish “Icons”.
GF: My observation of art scenes in Asia is that less weight is placed on that exclusive relationship of representation, with artists opting to grab opportunities more in sync with the pace and economics of the day.
WL: For me it is a partnership both in business and one that is deeply personal, and it is underlined by trust – a bit like a marriage. Communication is key and I try to maintain an open relationship where everything is laid onto a table to be discussed, analyzed and, where possible improved upon – being mutually respectful. Once everyone understands their roles and carries them out professionally then the ability to move the industry forward becomes that much easier. It’s when they’re blurred that things get messy and holds everyone back.
I have a core of artists that I represent. Part of that relationship is that they only do their solo exhibitions with us, and we discuss all other aspects of their careers eg. group shows with other galleries/museums, auction inclusion, commissions. Nothing exists in isolation and nothing should conflict. I approach their career development as a complete philosophy. Having been in the industry for a while now, and entrusted with the role of introducing their work to both collectors and the public at large, placing their works in the right collections and keeping a watchful eye on archiving is part of that responsibility. This is important because although provenance may not be of paramount importance now it will matter in the long run. This is part of the job – to be a caretaker in all aspects of your artist’s careers.
GF: Munkao is one of the younger artists to join the gallery in recent years, tell us about some of the others that define the mix that is Wei-Ling Gallery.
WL: I presented Munkao’s first solo last year, drawn to his interesting view of the world and clever approach to his art. Every few years I will introduce one or two young artists to my stable. I am not hasty as I believe it will become a long term working relationship. Recently I started working with Cheng Yen Pheng, another young artist who is not only technically sound but is making herself heard. Her artworks make strong statements that range from gender issues to sexual preferences – difficult subjects that are not normally accepted upfront in an Asian society.
GF: How do these artists more broadly represent a shift in that landscape of contemporary art practice in Malaysia?
WL: It is exciting to see is that there are artists like Munkao and Yen Pheng out there who are bold and daring, experimental without losing sight of their craft, simply making interesting works that go against the grain. This shift represents the voice (angst) of the next generation who are definitively staying true to what counts. This needs to be supported despite the repercussions that could ensue. These are exciting times for Malaysian art.
GF: You are one of the few galleries in Malaysia that has supported sculptural practice. How did that come about?
WL: The first sculptor I worked with was Multhalib Musa. I had always admired his works and wanted to work with him. We did a few group shows together and I hosted a solo exhibition of his in 2009. Today that has expanded to Amin Gulgee, Juhari Said, Umibaizurah Mahir, and I have recently started working with Ahmad Osni Peii.
In the past it was a struggle to get people to look at any form of art, but thankfully there has been a huge shift in the local art scene. While sculpture has always been a more difficult [than painting] again the interest is growing and people are beginning to appreciate its beauty and want to understand. My desire is to push for more public sculpture in Malaysia as I feel that it would reach out to the masses. Hopefully something I can achieve in the long term.
GF: Part of that ‘public push’ was to position the gallery at The Gardens Mall. You opened Wei-Ling Contemporary in April 2011. It is a big space: 3,800 square feet. How has it altered the way you show work and indeed market your artists within a mall context?
WL: We decided that in order to show Malaysians ‘real art’ we had to take the work of our artists to a more public platform. Until very recently only frame shops and commercial galleries flogging decorative artworks were seen in malls. We wanted to show people that there are also artists doing serious artworks in Malaysia. We currently hold most of our solo exhibitions at The Gardens and group exhibitions and more experimental shows at Brickfields. We are now looking towards more installation and alternative media works, and I hope to develop that direction in the next few years. I feel art needs to resonate with its audience and I am actively looking for artists who do that.
GF: Ten years on does the gallery say as much about you as it does Malaysian art?
WL: Ten years is a long time but also a very short time. We started this conversation talking about a 5 year old’s impressions of Rome that shaped a passion for a lifetime. We all grow through our experiences. I am a different person than that artist with her first painting show in Bangsar, however I still carry with me the same ideals and integrity to share the joy of art with others. Today the gallery is much greater than just me, but it gives me great pride that it also defines me to a certain extent. Collectively – my artists and I – are a little more confident, bolder, and more worldly in this thing we call ‘the art market’, but most importantly we are more visible. These are exciting times.
GF: And looking forward?
WL: No one would have believed that Asian art would take off the way it has done over the last decade. In order for Malaysia to be a part of the movement we need to have more of a voice. We have a presence, but not enough of one. The local art industry has not given priority to promoting contemporary Malaysian art both within the country and in the region. [This past decade] has been an exhilarating time as we have seen many positive developments. We need to keep that momentum rolling. I would like to see more collectors who recognize serious artists; to see stronger support of the industry by corporations and the media raising awareness, to give voice to objective art writers and reviewers with integrity. I think we still need to see more professionalism in the industry making it one that we can be proud of. As gallerists we need to protect the future for our artists and our nation’s cultural heritage.
Gina Fairley is a freelance writer and curator specializing in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia. This conversation occurred via email during the period March-August 2012.