William Lim’s installation projects have been casting a long shadow over our city’s public art landscape. The architect/artist talks to Edmund Lee.
Award-winning architect; co-chairman of Para/Site Art Space; ardent collector of Hong Kong art. William Lim is synonymous with his many capacities in our creative industry except, perhaps, the one which the architect-cum-artist has an entry for in The Guinness Book of World Records: his monumental installation Lantern Wonderland, which was exhibited at Victoria Park during last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, was recognised as the world’s largest sculpture made from lanterns. A range of Lim’s large-scale art installations, which he’s showcased in public spaces locally and internationally over the past 10 years, is on show – either in their original forms or as video documentation – at a retrospective in ArtisTree this fortnight. Lim talks to Time Out ahead of the exhibition opening.
The show looks back on your first decade of working in art installations. How did it all begin?
Actually I started just by coincidence. I did an installation [Lantern Wonderland at Victoria Park] for the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2003. It was done right after SARS. The [Hong Kong] Tourism Board wanted to do something for the people and bring life back to the city; it was a design competition that they did. I entered it as an architect – what I did was an architectural project – but in the end, a lot of people saw it as an art installation. It’s public art; 150,000 people came to see it and it did a lot to generate some happy feelings among the public. That’s how I started this whole journey into doing art installations.
How do you think your profession in architecture has influenced you as an artist?
To me, I think an architect has a social responsibility. We care about what we build and how our projects affect the way people live and appreciate space. I really hope this kind of public awareness becomes part of my art installations. I think, as an artist, you have more of an ego, kind of a self-searching part; but as a public artist doing public works, that obligation becomes something quite different. I do feel that whatever I produce, it’s going to change the way people look at art and think about space. To a certain extent, I hope it’ll bring families together and give joy to the people. I don’t believe that art has to be something high up on a pedestal. I’m not one who wants to make these deep artistic statements with my work. There are different types of artists; there are those who feel that art has a very high mission – but I do not feel that. I think art needs to be enjoyed by people.
Your focus on social responsibility is probably not shared by too many other artists.
[Laughs] I guess that really came from my profession. Since I was not trained as an artist, [I’ve] always [been] seen as being a bit different from the ‘real artists’. I think, in Hong Kong, there are a few people who were not trained as artists: they were trained as designers and they got into art. We’re always made to feel almost as outsiders. But then I also realised a lot of [the] very important artists were never trained as artists – like Francis Bacon was never trained as an artist – so, to me, that was very encouraging. At one point I felt a real struggle: how could I be an artist and make that a distinct and separate part from my profession [in architecture]? I talked to a lot of people about it, [including] Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and his advice was actually: “Don’t try to separate [the two], try to make them one.” Maybe that’s how I can make my work different from other people’s work.
We know you’re quite a collector of Hong Kong art. Can you tell us a bit about your interest?
Well, actually, when I started about five years ago, I didn’t know that much about Hong Kong art – a lot of them are not collectable stuff, they are very conceptual – and I think it came from the fact there were hardly any people paying attention to Hong Kong artists. I felt that in a way they do need support, and there are some really talented artists here, so I started collecting their works. And now a lot of them have become very successful internationally. I think the whole art scene has really changed, almost to a point that maybe the price has gone up so much I probably can’t afford them any more. But it’s good: you can understand the society by looking at the work produced by the artists; a lot of the artists in Hong Kong produce works that are very relevant to the time we live in. I think in 50 years, the work will become quite significant.
Would you say you’re also inspired by those you collect?
Yeah, definitely. I do feel that a lot of Hong Kong artists use very raw materials. That’s very interesting – and that’s how I like to approach my work. I also like to work with local construction techniques like [bamboo] scaffolding. My work is definitely inspired by the Hong Kong environment.
Space Journey: William Lim, A Decade of Installations is at ArtisTree, Aug 15-Sep 2.