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Exclusive Interview with Artist Charles Lim


Exclusive Interview with Artist Charles Lim
"SEA STATE 6: capsize" (2015), digital film still, single- channel HD digital video, 7minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Artling recently caught up with Singaporean artist and former Olympian sailor Charles Lim about SEA STATE, his body of work that will soon be showcased at his solo exhibition at NTU's Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. 

Artist Charles Lim Yi Yong
Image courtesy of Wee Li Lin

SEA STATE is a fascinating body of work, because the sea is so fundamental to the story of Singapore, both historical and present, and yet it is often not acknowledged or forgotten in our highly urbanized world. What was your inspiration for this project?

SEA STATE represents the place that I am in currently, which is the state of Singapore. Along with being a reference to a system used to determine the condition of the sea, the idea behind the project is that, as an artist, I’m interested in looking at the sea. I wanted to create a situation where I can work with the sea in a more intimate way. 

The project is inspired by the World Meteorological Organization’s code for measuring sea conditions and is numbered in parts that follow the varying states of the sea ranging from calm, to moderate, to the phenomenal. As a sailor, my relationship with water often acts as a guide in terms of how I measure the environment, its flux, its extremes, its mundane realities and idiosyncrasies. 

"SEA STATE 8: THE GRID" (2014), detail, prepared GSP1 chart, published by Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore
Image courtesy of the artist

What were the greatest challenges for you in producing SEA STATE and how did you overcome them?

The project was initiated in 2005 and the Singapore Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale 2015 was a sort of culmination. One of the challenges of working on this project has related to engaging with tropes of the sublime that dominate impressions of the sea: the sea as site where one may project all of one’s desires, a non-reflexive body that never responds. I sometimes call it, an uneasy maritime consciousness. How do we re-establish a cultural relationship with the sea? How do we begin to consider what lies beneath the water? How do we recognise the sea for the manner in which it has been corporatised, militarised and industrialised? 

"SEA STATE 0: all the lines flow out" (2011), digital film still
Image courtesy of the artist

Do you think that the issues you raise in SEA STATE, such as the cultural failure to acknowledge our extremities and the manifestation of our human condition to control and dominate (in SEA STATE 0: internal waters), is an index of the broader socio-cultural issues that Singapore faces?

SEA STATE could be said to be driven by an urgency. It initiates a dialogue on Singapore’s relationship with the sea. It also meditates upon land reclamation as a constant and ongoing activity in Singapore. Singapore continues to grow through this process. It could be said, SEA STATE opens up newer ways of engaging with water and its other – land; from mutating landscapes and islands that have been consumed and generated in this constant need making more space to the imaginary boundaries of a future landmass. SEA STATE negotiates the concerns of Singapore through situating the debates surrounding land reclamation, resource use and territorial sovereignty in global, transnational terms.

"SEA STATE 6: phase1" (2015), film still
Image courtesy of the artist

SEA STATE is a work that highlights Singapore’s use of resources, territorial sovereignty and climate change. Art that engages with similar kinds of socio-cultural impact and brings art into life, is often criticized for providing questions to the issues it raises, but not any solutions. What do you think is the role of art in relation to society, in terms of your own artistic practice?

One could say there is an ecological angle to the project, but SEA STATE is also about resource use. The curator of the Singapore Pavilion, Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, uses this expression, “within much of late-modernity our systems operate under the assumption that we can make finite resources appear infinite. A sort of technoshamanism that governs our everyday life”. Sand, for instance, is a great example. I think Mustafa borrows the term “technoshamanism” from the Thai curator Apinan Poshynanda. 


SEA STATE was first commissioned and presented at the Singapore Pavilion for the 56th Venice Biennale, and will now be shown at Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. Do you anticipate any differences or similarities in the reception of your work?

The project was selected by a committee of experts convened by the commissioner of the Singapore Pavilion, the National Arts Council of Singapore. What makes the Venice Biennale interesting is that it is one of the longest enduring formats where the nation-state still maintains a particular apparentness. As a result, to exhibit at the Venice Biennale comes with its set of peculiar anxieties. Navigating through the expectations of representing “Singapore”, but at the same time maintaining criticality within the exhibition and the artworks. Could it be ventured that the artist and the nation meet in a sort of constant limbo?

Showing SEA STATE at the NTU CCA Singapore is in a way, a homecoming for the project. This is the first monographic showcase of SEA STATE. In addition to the works exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion, the exhibition in Singapore will be extended by the primarily photographic work SEA STATE 1: inside\outside (2005), and the short film SEA STATE 0: all the lines flow out which first premiered at the 68th Venice Film Festival in 2011. I do not want to comment on the reception of the exhibition before it opens. We will, however, be initiating a series of public programmes and discussion on various thematics that emerge from SEA STATE.

Detail view of Charles Lim's SEA STATE at the Singapore Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale 2015
Image courtesy of the artist

Following on from SEA STATE, what other projects are you working on and what issues do you hope to explore through your work?

I have just realised a work for the Sydney Biennale on optical submarine telecommunications cables within the sea. It is connected to my projects. What are the infrastructures of the internet? What sort of man-made devices occupy the sea? Who controls these resources and importantly, the data that they carry? These are real and material questions that confront us. In fact, this was one of the projects that we were thinking of proposing for the Singapore Pavilion in Venice. That’s a project I just realised, but there are also quite a few more things that I am working on.


Charles Lim Yi Yong: SEA STATE is showing at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore from 30 April to 10 July 2016. Find out more here



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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