He’s been profoundly deaf since birth, but that won’t stop New York-based artist Leon Lim from bringing contemporary art back to his native Malaysia in the hope of shaking up a scene that he says has become overly reliant on a culture of borrowing. I met Lim last year and wrote this story about him. A lack of forward-planning on my part meant that the story didn't get used, so rather than let it go to waste, I have decided to post it here to give him what little exposure I can.
“Malaysia is famous for actually taking other people’s artwork and taking a little bit of it and making it their own, not really from scratch, having an idea and developing it,” said Lim, signing though an interpreter at a Chinese restaurant in George Town, the capital of Penang state.
“Malaysia doesn’t really have any kind of direction when it comes to art because they’re used to just taking pieces of other people,” said the young artist, who prefers to keep his age secret for fear of being judged.
“Technically it’s a copy and I don’t really like that. What their view is on their art, I have to respect that and their interpretation, but I just don’t think they have the right direction.”
The Last Chairs, a chaotic work that saw Lim indulge in his fondness for using ordinary objects to reflect a snapshot of their surroundings, was given life at the recent George Town Festival.
The piece saw Lim pile up more than 100 discarded chairs in a large prism by the side of a quiet road, much to the bafflement of locals and visitors alike.
“The focus really is not on the actual chairs — there’s a meaning behind it,” he explained, pausing briefly as a waitress delivered a bowl of steaming noodles and a cup of iced water.
“It actually means the last generation. Many people love George Town, but the people who love it are usually the people who grew up here, the older people. If you notice, with the newer generation, people are not appreciating the art, the history, the culture like we used to a long time ago.”
Lim puts this disconnect down to the way technology has taken a grip over the interests of younger generations.
“The old generation, they like old things. They like antiques, they like things that they grew up with. They don’t necessarily need new things to make them happy. However, you notice the new generation they like gadgets, technology, the focus is different — two different focuses.”
Lost in translation
While Lim doesn’t mind people taking time to understand the meaning behind his pieces, he becomes increasingly frustrated when people won’t even try to come up with an interpretation.
“I don’t want to give people just my interpretation, I want them to have their own interpretation, so a lot of people have asked me questions, ‘What is the reason that I made the art?’ and I give it to them, but I tell them I want their own interpretation,” he added.
“I want them to look at it and help remind them of something they’ve seen before, or experienced in their past. With most of my work, you notice a theme of maybe some type of history, or something that happened in the past and people will look at it and go, ‘I remember something like that that happened to me before.’”
Born and raised in Malaysia’s Kedah state, Lim made the short journey south in 1992 to study at the English-language Federation School for the Deaf in Penang.
Lim’s parents remained convinced he would be able to hear again some day and tried to push him to have cochlear implants in China, but he set out on his own, living alone from age 14 so he could create his own world — one without sound — to prove to his parents that there was no need for him to be “cured” in order to follow his dreams.
“When I was born, my parents never believed that I was deaf. They believed that one day I would hear again, and I told them it’s not going to happen. A lot of accomplishments I’ve made, my parents just never thought that I could do that. They thought maybe I should be a banker or an accountant or something like that. But art? Never,” he said.
Lim created his first sculpture piece, The Recycled Head Anatomy, in 1998, using old bulbs, cans and other junk collected from around George Town to create a large Terminator-esque skull. More recently, he’s dabbled in paintings, graphic design, photography and art installations — almost anything that involves creating.
Unhappy with a stagnant art scene and a lack of support on offer for deaf people in Malaysia, Lim went to the United States and attended the Rochester Institute of Technology where he studied interior architecture design and photography and graphic design before settling in New York, which he now calls home.
“I’m a designer, also I’m a photographer. I’m actually going in two different directions at the moment, and so I design for my company. I enjoy both of them, so most of my time right now is focussed on my projects, not really art. My designing is actually my main focus right now,” he said.
His works have been displayed at the likes of the World Financial Centre Gallery in New York City and the John F Kennedy Centre Terrace Gallery in Washington DC, but returning to Malaysia is a challenge for Lim, who draws a lot of influence from US neo-pop artist Jeff Koons.
“For example, sometimes I spend a lot of money on art, and my friends and family say, ‘Why don’t you use that money to buy a new car, why are you wasting it on arts? Use it for something practical,’” he said.
“My thoughts were always different from theirs. Here in Malaysia, or even in Asia, people always think to use their money in practical ways,” he added. “My goal is to encourage Asia, and especially people in Malaysia, to enjoy art. It actually helps you have a better life. Instead of focussing on money and material things, just enjoy life.”
Part of the problem is in the way art is taught in educational institutions around Malaysia, said Lim.
“A lot of colleges that focus on art here, they kind of use an old system in teaching art. They don’t learn new ideas in school so how can they think new when they’re not learning new things?” he added.
“Malaysia here doesn’t have good education when it comes to art. They’re really behind. So sometimes I show people my art, and they go, ‘What does that mean, I don’t understand it.’ And when I explain it, they still don’t get it, so it’s really hard to explain. Nobody else has that type of art, none of my friends, so they just don’t get it.”
While the task of opening the ears and minds of a generation lost in material desires may prove elusive for the time being, Lim says he plans to spend the rest of the year taking his vision around the world to Russia, Japan, Germany and Singapore, but he has a bigger, more over-arching aim.
“I do have an actual career goal when it comes to my work, but I really want to keep it a little bit of a secret,” he said, dropping hints of a desire to set up a huge museum of Asian art somewhere, somehow.