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Harvesting Home: Nicolette Lim

Strange Harvest was on view at the Lexington Art League’s Loudon House from July 1st to July 24th.

Upon entering Nicolette Lim’s 2020 solo exhibition Strange Harvest, the viewer was greeted by two giant women. These figures, Amazonian in stature, towered over the viewer. Their eyes straight forward, gazing upon something undisclosed in the distance. They were nude save for a pair of thick woolen socks and the bundles of sticks (also known as faggots) strapped to their backs. The weight of the bundles evidenced by the rope pressing into their fleshy torsos. The figure in the foreground stood tall while the figure in the background crouched as if to collect the single charred matte black stick just out of her reach.

“Perempuan Minyak”, 2020, drawing on customized rice paper soaked in palm oil

Malaysian-born Chinese-American artist Nicolette Lim draws from a wide range of influences and experience; her art is inspired by Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and Ann Hamilton just for starters. Lim grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she attended a rigorous and conservative traditional Chinese all-girls school. Lim’s identity as a mixed-race person, child of an American and queer woman made her the subject of intense hazing, bullying, and scrutiny from students and teachers. These experiences shaped Lim for life and the rigid disciplinarian structures of her girlhood play into her visual iconography. Images of girls in pinafore uniforms (similar to the one Lim herself was required to wear), books, and even an old school projector occupy space within the exhibition. One image which I found incredibly striking is a drawing of a girl standing upon a chair and tugging on her earlobes. This strange ritual feels both foreign and familiar all at once. Lim’s girls exist in a space void of distinguishing characteristics but occupied instead by bugs, sticks, anatomical illustrations, tears, seeds, and veins.

Strange Harvest recounted Lim’s experience of the haze, an annual human-made phenomenon in Malaysia where a thick smog blankets the country for weeks at a time as a result of slash burnings done by those in the palm-oil industry. These dangerous and ecologically disastrous practices, according to Lim, contribute to the disintegration of Malaysia’s ecosystems and environment. Lim recalls, as a child, perceiving the haze as a natural phenomenon, it being something persistent and unavoidable.

“Burung Puki”, 2020, soft sculpture with porcelain

A piece that best exemplifies the soft-violence of the haze is a large nest placed upon a table. The nest constructed of sticks and bows is occupied by several bird-girl figures who appear to be in the midst of a secret ritual, the purpose known only to them. One cannot help but feel concerned for these creatures, whose porcelain legs and sock-clad feet further emphasize their innocence, fragility, and humanness. Lim investigates the larger power structures of capitalism behind this ecological destruction, focusing on the laborers of the palm oil industry (usually women) who are paid poorly and work in unsafe conditions for long hours. Lim also metaphorically demonstrates the destruction of the haze through charred and blackened objects: wooden chairs, tables, and books.

“Seeds of Our Flesh”, 2020, drawing and installation

“Twelve Canes”, 2018, drawings and found sticks

Yet another layer to this exhibition was Lim’s addressing of anti-LGBTQ attitudes in Malaysia. Moments of female intimacy, girls holding hands, and close-ups of women’s bodies persisted through the show. Lim juxtaposed this sensuality with images of violence, notably a row of hands, flayed open and speared with black sticks. These “switches” are representative of caning, a popular punishment for homosexuality in Malaysia. Lim juxtaposes this violence with the ecological violence, the economic destruction of capitalism, and the violent traditional power structures she came up under in her schooling.

In Strange Harvest, Lim presented a body of work that is both soft and violent, dark and tender. Her investment in examining the underlying power structures of oppression within her home country, and that exist globally, is refreshing. Too often in contemporary art, our artists mine this trauma for material, then cast it aside. Lim’s investment in these issues rings genuine and, although she is halfway across the world, Malaysia is her home.