Artist Focus: Ryan Lim Zi Yi
Thing Books [TB]: Hello, Ryan! Can you briefly introduce yourself and your practice?
Ryan Lim [RL]: My name is Ryan Lim, I am a visual artist. My practice mainly involves making installations that usually consist of sculpture, text, images and moving images. A lot of the times I’m making different components and piecing them together within my installations. I also try to make books or publications for my installations as an alternative way to present these works.
TB: Let’s maybe go back to the beginning. How did you come to be introduced to art and sculpture?
RL: I studied at School of the Arts [SOTA] when I was 13, and I had to select a specialisation at some point. I chose sculpture because I really enjoyed making things with my hands, and I was very curious to how that worked. I started off working a lot with wood sculptures, mainly also because my SOTA teacher, Zainudin Samsuri, was a sculptor that worked a lot with wood. Afterwards I went to Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts [NAFA] and continued my specialisation in sculpture with teachers like Lim Soo Ngee, Sai Hua Kuan, and Wang Ruobing, who were very influential to my development. It was very technical too, I remember being very exposed to a lot of other different materials like metal, bronze, and just everyday objects.
I just waited for it to subside before doing anything else , Ryan Lim Zi Yi [Images by Rafael Roncato]
Before university I was working with traditional ways of sculpting and dealing with space; learning about materials and how they react to space. It was a very important part of my development too because even now when I look at my works, I tend to look at it from a very sculptural point of view. I look at the materials I’ve picked and think about how they react to the space but also ask myself why I chose this. A lot of the times there are stories behind them and I try to show that in my installations.
TB: We met, kind of unofficially, during the pandemic when there were no physical exhibitions happening at the time so my first encounter of your work was through social media and your zines. At the time you were posting images of the works you did with text written, printed or painted on these cardboard boxes you collected and would later discard. Your zines also weave in texts that are not just musings or your own writings, some of them feel like collected conversations. So how did this notion of collecting come about for you?
I found the cardboard in the trash, then I painted on them, and then I put them back in the trash [2020 - 2021], Ryan Lim Zi Yi
RL: At the time I was quite new to the usage of text in my work and I was still trying to figure out how to pair them with the images or sculpture. For me, text is my go-to for understanding things. When I’m reading a book or trying to visualise something, I form little stories in my head to make sense of the things around me.
I was at a very early stage in my development and I would collect text from a lot of the things I consumed like the films I watched, the books I read, the music I listened to, or things on the streets like advertisement boards or graffiti; anything I encounter in my day to day life, even things that people say to me. I found it really interesting how these lines come about, and how people think when they say something or when they want to make a statement. I was using that as a form of how lines and words can structure themselves.
I rarely wrote original text because I felt like a lot of my own writing was very cheesy, so I sourced text from other sources. Eventually I realised that there is a nice honesty to writing your own text and I slowly transitioned into doing more of my own writing just because it felt a lot more genuine to myself. I can reflect my own thoughts through my own words, which is important for my work.
TB: What ideas or notions would you say your works represent?
At the end of it all , Ryan Lim Zi Yi
RL: When I look at my work and the things that I do, very often I would describe them as a way to collect moments of the everyday. When I select certain things or objects or circumstances that happen within the everyday, I try to not just rely on aesthetics or because they look quite romantic or beautiful. I try to think about how I’ve responded to them. I would use objects that have always been around me, but I only start to realise they are there at a certain point in time.
A lot of the epiphany and realisation of the ways we live can be reflected in these objects. For example, after I shower, I hang my towel up a certain way: on the rail, spread out, so it will dry properly. But when I was younger, I used to scrunch it up and my dad would scold me because he’d say this way the towel will grow mould and smell really bad. And that stuck with me, and these actions become almost quite ritualistic and thoughtless. At some point I realised I’ve been doing this every day without thinking about it so what does it all mean? I start to reflect on how I’ve been living my life, and that expands beyond a private setting – maybe how I would act or live when I’m in a public setting. A lot of the times, in my work, I try to draw these connections because I think it all starts from how you live at home.
TB: And how long do you sit on the idea before it fully forms and you decide you want to explore this as a work?
RL: It depends. I can’t plan for it; it has to happen.
The object has to sort of… not speak to me, but I really have to think about it for awhile and ask myself, “Why am I thinking about this all the time?” Sometimes I think about it for a short time and the thought disappears and I move on, but sometimes it sticks with me and that’s how I write texts because I try to write stories about these objects and how I react to them. The act of writing helps me to understand what these objects mean to me, it’s like self-reflection within these objects.
TB: Before our chat we asked you to pick out a few books that have influenced/informed your artistic & book-making practice. Can you share about the books you’ve selected?
RL: Book-making is very new to me, I really only started 4 years ago. I never really worked a lot with books in the past so I won’t say that they really informed my practice but I tried to pick books that I’m influenced by.
geel, gelige  & the second , Laura Hogeweg at P/////AKTPOOL
The first book I picked is by Laura Hogeweg. She’s a Dutch artist who works a lot with installations, image-making, and space. I went to one of her shows in an art space called P/////AKT in Amsterdam. I remember being very surprised because I’ve never seen such a show where it almost feels like there’s nothing in it, but there’s so much in it.
This is the first show in a series of three. In this one she painted part of the walls yellow, then she placed different fragments of images and different furniture in this space and painted them all yellow. When you enter the space, it feels like a puzzle, almost like an escape room where you have to manoeuvre around the space to work out why everything is there.
In the second show, it became even emptier. It was just different walls painted different colours, and in the corner there’s a metal cabinet and you’ll see chairs from the previous show repainted the same colour as the floor. I just thought it was really bizarre, and up until now I’m still confused with this show. The pages of her book reflect the exhibition. In a lot of the books that I make now I try to reflect the shows and works that I’ve been doing as well.
TB: You mentioned in another interview that the book almost becomes another object within your installation and exhibition. How would you say you approach the book-making process in relation to the exhibition?
We will never have earthquakes, Ryan Lim Zi Yi
RL: With the We will never have earthquakes books, they start to become more simultaneous. This series I’m working on is still quite new. I already have a plan that I want to have seven or eight chapters. In a way, I’m thinking of it as a book with different chapters and parts, so yes, I do think of making the book as I’m developing the installation for the show. But the book is not a catalogue for the show, it’s an artwork on its own.
For this, I really tried to compress my installations into a book format because I think it’s quite nice to have everything all into just a few pages and see them chronologically, almost like a storyboard. I show images of my installations and some images that were used in my installations, and I think that’s quite nice because it’s a lot of scattered images you have to piece together yourself.
50 Ways of Installing an Exhibition (and Random Stories), Lee Kit
RL: The next book I picked is by Hong Kong artist Lee Kit. I went to his exhibition in the Netherlands and there was a book he made with West Den Haag in The Hague. The book is called 50 Ways of Installing an Exhibition (and Random Stories), and the exhibition itself was almost like a book.
This space used to be the US Embassy. It has a lot of different rooms that were used as offices last time. When you enter the space, you start off with the main exhibition space, and as you continue walking, you’ll enter a corridor where there are multiple rooms that were once offices. There are maybe 30 rooms in total, and each room has one work.
As you’re walking into the rooms, you’re sort of going page by page, experiencing different artworks. I found it so interesting how this way of presenting works felt so chronological, but at the same time you can skip the rooms or decide which you want to enter first. At the end of the show I received this book which teaches you how to install an exhibition. It is at the same time funny, cynical, bizarre and also quite absurd.
Lovers on the Beach, Lee Kit at West Den Haag
Do a site visit in advance and have a walk in the exhibition space on your own.
“Head down, looking downward. Like you are up in the air, looking down to your own life. Is it nice? At the moment, you are either too excited or spaced out. A big pile of breathlessness makes you breathe. You wish there was a window that the sunlight can leak in. Are there any windows behind these walls?”
Make a big installation in the middle of the gallery space.
He said, ‘I lose my interest if anything becomes big.’
Relaxed, look at it again and start to walk around.
Don’t dance in the gallery if it is not necessary, please.
You tell yourself, ‘Don’t dance in the gallery.’ You smile but don’t feel relieved. You never have a slightest thought to dance in a gallery.
‘To be precise, don’t dance in a painting show.
What if I run in the gallery instead of dancing?’
Unlike having a walk or doing dishes, just don’t do any- thing if it is not necessary.
There is a kind of honesty in his writing; an entry point into his mind and true thoughts – I think that’s important.
TB: How long were you in The Hague for?
RL: I was there for 4 years.
I just waited for it to subside before doing anything else , Ryan Lim Zi Yi
TB: And how do you think that has influenced the way you think and the themes that you’re attracted to?
RL: When I was there, I felt homesick a lot but at the same time I really liked being away. It was important at the time to have some distance between me and the people I was close to, the things I was used to.
I was in Holland looking at things that were happening in Singapore from a distance. In my school I was the only Singaporean so I would call friends in Singapore to talk about things that happened, or just everyday life. But being away and having this distance between you and the space you were once so comfortable in is quite nice because it made me very reflective of how I lived my life and how life was being lived in a foreign country; just the tiny things – people’s mentalities and attitudes towards things, for example. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different approaches.
A lot of the books I made in Holland were very reflective. I was curious about how ways of living could shift when you are in a foreign space. What things do we realise? What things do we notice?
TB: Can you talk about the themes in the third book you selected, Strange Weather in Tokyo?
Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami
RL: The book has themes of loneliness and relationships, but I chose it for the way it was written, especially towards certain objects in the book. It’s descriptive in a way that is crucial to setting a scene and I reflect that a lot in my work as well as when I make installations. There’s almost this sculptural quality when the writer described certain scenes, and that’s important to me in terms of understanding how we use objects to represent a bigger picture and certain themes.
TB: And the last book in your selection is Genevieve Leong’s a pocket dictionary of things misunderstood. Is that also more for its sculptural qualities?
a pocket dictionary of things misunderstood , Genevieve Leong
RL: It’s about her works as well, I like the sensitivity with which she plays around the objects she selects, there’s almost this fragile-ness to it. When I read the text being used in her works, I see a careful constructive quality that really shows in her installations too. I tend to reflect a lot of my own work when I see her work, and how I can piece my text and installations together to complement each other.
TB: When you talk about the sculptural qualities of text, I see a lot of similarities in both your works. They become like standalone objects, especially with your works in the show at starch with the vibrating table and a phrase at the side made from wall putty, it’s like an object on an object. There’s no storytelling to it, it’s like you want the phrase to stand by itself.
RL: Yes, and it’s not so much about the way the text is structured but the way you read it as well, like how the words make you read it a certain way.
TB: Can you elaborate?
RL: The words can be completely abstract, but you read it a certain way. Maybe you whisper it in your head, or you scream it. It’s difficult to capture a certain way I want people to read it, or a certain emotion when they read it – whether I want them to whisper it softly with a tinge of regret, that kind of thing. I think about how I select words that would make people read them with a certain emotion, or make them think, “These words should be read in this way.”
Wake up and smell the coffee , Ryan Lim Zi Yi at starch
I try to think about how I can do that now in addition to other things. It can also just be one or two words that encapsulate the whole feeling of the work. I’m still trying to figure that part out. It’s so complex, I struggle with it as well sometimes. Maybe I should read more. *laughs*
TB: Can you share more about the relationship between text and images in your work?
RL: It’s almost like different pieces of a puzzle. My installations usually consist of three (or more) components. It could be text, image and a moving image, or text, image, and a sculpture. It’s like I’m constructing a set, and they are like different props to construct the set.
The relationship between the text and image is for myself to make sense of the images. When I develop my work, I start to write a lot first, afterwards I branch out to looking at the images I’ve taken on my phone, maybe. Or the things that I have in my room, or the things I see in a particular space I want to use. Sort of just taking these things together and trying to choreograph a sequence, trying to figure out the relationships between everything so that everything can make sense together, to give context to one another, to give support – the image supporting the text, the text supporting the object, and the object supporting the image. So that they are not so individualistic in a way that they are not too abstract. It’s really to select what goes well with each other or what goes against each other that makes the work present the bigger picture.
We will never have earthquakes , Ryan Lim Zi Yi at Objectifs
TB: And finally, is there a reason why you work primarily with zines?
Works for a space in transition, Ryan Lim Zi Yi
RL: When I was very young, I made a friend – I still have the friend around, he’s still my friend – he worked a lot with zines. His name is Lai Yu Tong. In the early stages, he used to make a lot of zines and we would talk about the act of making zines. Only about five years ago I really started thinking maybe I can play around with the zine because it’s such a DIY, quick and easy format to make. A zine is very accessible, that’s important to me. Much like my work, a zine uses components that have always been in my familiar surroundings.
When I work on the spread, I have to figure out how to pair or group things. They’re almost like a reflection of how I would make my installations with the different components, how I would position certain images on one page, and certain text on the next. It’s like making an installation where I have to figure out the composition, which I think is very fun to do.
At the end of it all, Ryan Lim Zi Yi
In At the end of it all, the text is chronological; you have to go through the book page by page because it’s telling you a story. But I had to think about how to put the images in between, at what stage do I break up the text and have it continue afterwards. When you put an image in between two passages, you have to take a breather to read. The restriction of the book is quite nice, I see it as a process that is very sculptural. It helps me think about composition, and how to take breaks between reading the text, reading the images and the “empty spaces” in between.
by Ryan Lim Zi Yi
18 Aug – 29 Sep at I_S_L_A_N_D_S