- Kim Lim 1936–1997
- Wood, metal and plaster
- Object: 400 × 350 × 245 mm
- Presented by the estate of the artist 2022
Sphinx 1959 is a sculpture made of three found wooden blocks, assembled so that they sit atop each other. The element at the base is the narrowest of the three. The central element is elongated and has two circular metal rings inserted into it. The element at the top is positioned off-centre and, on one of its flat surfaces, it has a deep groove carved out vertically. Cracks along the grain of the wood suggest its history and uneven drying process.
Sphinx was made the year before Kim Lim completed her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. Since being a student at St. Martin’s School of Art and then at the Slade, Lim enjoyed the direct engagement with the material involved in the process of carving wood, working from a given shape and taking away. While still a student, Lim began to salvage, carve and assemble wood off-cuts found in wood yards. Assemblage allowed Lim to create from building blocks, with given forms and histories, and insert them into playful configurations that are harmonious yet seemingly off-balance. Lim did not paint the wood, as she wanted to maintain the original vitality of her materials. Instead, she scorched the surface so that various sections would acquire distinctive textures and reflect the light differently. ‘There was a kind of innocence and an arrogance at the same time,’ Lim later said of her early sculptures of the late 1950s and early 1960s (Kim Lim, interviewed by Cathy Courtney, Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories, British Library, C466/51, 1995, track 8, tape 5, side A, p.103 of the transcript). Like her prints from the same period, such as Shogun 1960 (Tate P07176), these formative sculptures have a distinct sense of wholeness and balance, combined with a certain boldness and rawness.
The title Sphinx speaks of the artist’s love of ancient artefacts and evokes the still elegance and eroded surface of the Sphinx of Gaza in Egypt. Lim stated: ‘I found that I always responded to things that were done in earlier civilisations that seemed to have less elaboration and more strength’ (Kim Lim, undated notes from the artist’s personal archive). The tension between simple, clear and at times archaic forms and abstraction remained recurring threads throughout her career. The choice of title might also hinge on the enduring fascination among artists and writers for the hybrid quality of the mythical creature, used as a reference by other artists who experienced displacement, exile and diaspora, as in the case of Hilde Goldschmidt’s The Sphinx 1948 (Tate T03350).
Over the years, Sphinx has been displayed in slightly different configurations, but the artist’s estate has confirmed that the correct, original configuration is with the top, ovoid element resting on the thicker part of the middle element rather than on the sloping part.
Kim Lim, interviewed by Cathy Courtney, Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories, British Library, C466/51, 1995.
Martin Holman, ‘The Sculpture of Empathy’, in Kim Lim, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London, 1999, pp.11–15.
Seth O’Farrell. ‘The Language of Implication’, in Kim Lim, exhibition catalogue, S|2, 2018, pp.21–41.
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