"And Lo, the Beholder...!"

An unlikely art gallery may be the refreshing disruption in the Singapore art scene, and the man in charge has a vision of how to save it
Published: 14 November 2023

Lim Chiao Woon isn’t your typical gallerist. Then again, his gallery doesn’t fit the mould of what an art gallery should be. For one, it is nestled in a shophouse in Haji Lane. Outside, a sign, in all its carnival barker glory, screams “LOVE ART? COME UPSTAIRS”. You follow the nondescript stairway leading up to the second level. Enter through the threshold, and find yourself besieged by a kaleidoscope of colours.

Called “Mr Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures”, the place sounds like an avant-garde school canteen stall. A cave of wonders, something out of a fairy tale. Lim opted for “Mr Lim” because it’s “unnecessarily dramatic,” he explains. “Like what Smashing Pumpkins would name its album—I wanted an ‘un-gallery’ name. The idea of calling a gallery a shop is to make art friendly to all folks… you know, like your HDB uncles.”

Artworks are displayed all over the place. If there was a rhyme or reason to their placement, only Lim knew. Several canvases are piled on a table near the door, wrapped in brown paper. Tang Da Wu’s “分叶” (“Dividing the Leaf” in Mandarin ), which takes the form of a granite sculpture, sits at the corner of a narrow staircase leading to the loft. A Thierry Noir original, wrapped simply in bubble wrap leans against the wall. Once on loan to the ArtScience Museum, the piece has been sitting there since its return. Lim casually mentions that it has a price of about 40 grand.

That sort of nonchalance is everpresent when you’re dealing with Lim. Attired in a black Sunspel T-shirt, he proffers bottled water—not Evian or any of the high-end liquids but rather a generic container from the local mom-and-pop mart. If you’re ever intimidated by art or by the gallery attendant hovering about you the moment you enter, you won’t be at Mr Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures. The experience can be likened to a casual Friday: peruse the artworks; engage in scintillating conversation with Lim; take your time.

Lim used to be a copywriter and creative director for BBH, JWT, BBDO—you know, the titans of the advertising world of initialism—before settling on being the regional creative director for the audio giant Bose.

“That was the best. I got to travel around the world—Japan, Australia, India... I flew constantly. It was great.” And despite the levity, a little grimness creeps into the edges of his next sentence. “Then COVID happened and I got sick.”

To be specific, he didn’t get sick from COVID. It was something else.

It was 2020, in the middle of the lockdown, when working from home became the norm. Lim was still with Bose. Maybe it had been happening all the while but he was alarmed at how swollen his face had got—his cheeks were puffed up, eyes were squeezed shut; the capillaries in his mien bloomed red. Was this an allergy? A bad reaction to something he ate? An undiscovered COVID symptom?

Lim visited the doctor, where, after a battery of tests, was told that a tumour was sitting on the top of his heart; and was impeding blood from being pumped into his face. They needed to do a biopsy.

After the biopsy, Lim had to stay in a ward overnight for observation. His physician told him that there were two kinds of cancer that Lim might have. One was lymphoma; “that’s the good one” as it is treatable. The other was more aggressive and would require excision—it had to be cut it out, and that would affect the healthy tissue around it.

Understandably, sleep wouldn’t come. A dark cloud filled his head as he rued the decades given to selling “crap to people”. “I was only 50 and regretted about how I’d spent my life,” Lim says. “The whole night listening to audiobooks—the Bible; the Koran; Thích Nh t [H nh]... until the sun came up and the doctor and nurses came in to deliver the results: good news, it’s lymphoma.”

“I may go through hell with the chemo, but with the 70 per cent chance for survival, I’ll take it.”

It’s always a major event that would change the course of one’s life. For Lim, the lymphoma veered him off the corporate track. The ad world wasn’t an easy thing to relinquish; he loved what he did and the generous remuneration that came with the responsibilities. “But it was too stressful, too hard. I don’t get to see my kids; I don’t get to see my wife. Changi Airport was a revolving door.” After he left Bose, Lim started his chemotherapy.

The thing about Lim is that when he looks at you, he doesn’t really see you. He has retinitis pigmentosa, a chronic hereditary eye disease that slowly causes the retina to degenerate. “It was manageable but the lymphoma messed up my eyes. Inflamed them so I started to lose vision.” 

He had an eye operation the other day—a steroid injection. “This drug is floating in my eye. Like a little snake, just letting out steroids.” He still has his peripheral vision but can only see “sides and bottoms”; a little pinhole in the middle of his eyes that allows him to read, albeit slowly and not for very long. He relies on software to audibly transcribe e-mails and texts. 

Lim can’t articulate how he “sees” an artwork. If he puts his face close to it, he can “sense” most of it. “I’ve to assemble the thing in my mind. Kinda like scanning,” he says, “it’s hard to explain but ‘sensing’ would be a better expression for the process.”

He looks drained; having to explain the worst part of his life to a stranger for the umpteenth time. He doesn’t want people to know about his ailment to avoid being treated differently. But he needs to explain to prevent any misunderstanding. Sometimes the people whom he had conversations with would return and he’d have no idea of who they were. “I go by your general shape,” Lim explains, “I’ve to familiarise myself with your movements and what you usually wear. I have to get your vibe.”

Lim doesn't use the walking cane that he was issued with. It draws too much attention, he says. But he knows that down the road, he might have to rely on it eventually. He is holding out hope though, in the form of stem cell research. “There’s a lot of progress with that, so the cures are coming in. My doctor says that I could be in line for the trial.” As always, he sees something that many aren’t privy to. A silver lining. A small seed of prospect to get him going.

Art became a refuge for him. So, during this period of great stress, Lim returns to this port in the storm and decides to set up his own gallery. His family were supportive. Rental was cheap during COVID, so Lim took up space in Tanglin Shopping Centre and filled it with art that he collected over the years. In the beginning, it was just him and his friends sitting in the store, talking cock and whiling the time away. There was hardly any traffic.

A few months in, Lim decided to put together an art show. It was inspired by a conversation that he had with Ai Weiwei when the latter opined about not being fussed about how his son was doing academically in school. “The world is ok with one additional fool,” he had said. Lim pondered on that. Those were good words to live by. “You’re more concerned about being who you are [and] doing what you believe in... I think it’s something to be said, to know who are the real fools,” Lim says. “ I mean, think of Steve Jobs or Picasso – they are all, at some point, thought to be crazy or not making sense.”

So, into madness, Lim went. He asked Ai if he wanted to be part of an art exhibition called Fools. He agreed and sent in three face masks with prints of his work on them. Ai’s inclusion garnered buzz and made it easier for Lim to approach more artists for the show. In 2022, on opening night, the queue snaked outside of Lim’s gallery. Lim admits that the show was amateurish. “The Straits Times called it a ‘grad show’, which was true. I’m not your usual gallerist. It’s very casual.”

He started selling; the ball started to roll with inquiries pouring in. Lim has hosted several shows since then. He wants to do this for as long as he can. He has moved into this new space in Haji Lane, where foot traffic is abundant.

With the gallery, Lim hopes to promote the local art scene.“I like the idea of being a somebody to a nobody, who will later be a somebody,” Lim says. “It’s not really helping but being part of this journey of a young artist. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Singapore isn’t the most friendly of places for an artist.”

He’s inundated with portfolios from artist hopefuls but he gives them the time of the day. “I’ll try to keep the gates open as long as I can. But I do have some criteria.” 

First, the artist needs to be serious about his work. It can’t be a hobby. A whim of fancy. Art as to be their life’s calling. Second, the work has to be unique, something that he hasn’t seen before. Third, he wants to back and represent promising but less-advantaged artists. “It’s a dumb criterion but they need my help more. Ninety-five per cent of them will quit within the first three years because our ecosystem doesn’t foster or cherish their endeavours as much as other countries,” Lim says. “I want to get them on bigger stages like Art SG or even overseas at Art Basel. It’s crazy expensive and it’s a guaranteed money-losing venture but what are you going to do?”

Lim will still take a cut from any art that he sells (“I still need to pay rent but I take 10 to 40 per cent less than the market rate, depending on the situation.”) but he eschews contracts. Everything that’s said is through WhatsApp, which leaves a digital trail. “Oh, and they are free to leave whenever they want. If you think about it, I’m running a halfway house.”

In the middle of the interview, Nur Syahirah, dressed in overalls enters with two large canvases. She is here to deliver her work through Lim. She got to know him when he attended a LASALLE graduation show. “There were a few artists or students that he was interested in and wanted to put our works in a group show,” Syahirah says.

While she didn’t have any expectations, she sold her first work through the show. Lim is helping her ship her second sold piece (which was the canvas that she lugged in) to another client. “I was supposed to work on an original piece but [the client] looked through my portfolio and wanted an earlier work.”

She’s encouraged by the sale. In other galleries, she reckoned that it would be harder to sell her pieces, but at Lim’s, the process is made easier. If Lim hadn’t entered her life, she wouldn’t know how to begin her journey, let alone, navigate, as an artist.

When it comes to funding, Lim has his savings to fall back on as well as working as a consultant. There is also his sizeable art collection that he began amassing in 2004. “I’ve paintings that I can sell off if I need the money. I’ve some [Takashi] Murakamis, a couple of Shepard Faireys like the Obama “Hope” poster. Those can pay the rent.”

The gallerist in his space.

I ask if there was a piece of art he won’t ever sell. Lim smiles as he gestures for me to wait while he retreats to the back and rummages through a box. He pulls out a milk tin and shows me the underside with Ai Weiwei’s signature. It’s one of the tins from Ai’s 2013 installation “Baby Formula”, which was a map of China made from more than 1,800 tins of baby formula to reflect the mainland’s demand for milk powder due to fears ignited over the safety of its domestic milk powder.

Lim can pinpoint the first time he got interested in art. He was a teenager on the bus and he saw his friend pull out a cassette tape of U2’s The Joshua Tree. He pulled out the liner notes and saw Anton Corbijn’s photos of the band.

“I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I know it’s not art-art but that awakened something in me. I’d go to museums to look at the art and whatnot.”

When Lim entered advertising, he saw that the advertising world and street art public creation were intertwined. “One has a commercial slant and the other is artistic,” he says. “Every creative would like to be a Banksy. He’s the gateway drug to my art collection.”

When pressed on what kind of art catches his eye, he thinks about it before answering. “I think, it needs to have an original spirit. It sounds weird but when you first see something, you can sort of get a sense of its spirit. Art shows you that in an unfiltered way. The whole idea of collecting that essence and keeping it around you? That’s a nice feeling.”

He points to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It is a philosophy book that’s about finding quality. “But not about finding good or bad quality. It’s a way of... I don’t know, being intuitive? My whole career is about judging things. Advertising is easier because I know the objective and I can match it to the objective. Art is different because you don’t judge it against an objective. You feel it. I find that more liberating and enjoyable.”

There’s regret in his voice as he laments about how he had lost years with them. About how he missed out a lot. But now he’s making up for lost time. His gallery business is a family affair: his sons transport and mount the artwork; his wife sweeps up the space. At home, the kind of paintings that go on the wall, involve a democratic procedure. “We all vote on it. Which is fine because they have to live with looking at it day in and day out.”

Is the lymphoma a Godsend? A Christmas Carrollian spirit of influence? Lim thinks that if it weren’t for the disease, he wouldn’t be managing a gallery. “I needed something like that to wake me up,” he says softly. “I would have stuck with the job, with the whole rat race. You’d want a bigger condo, a bigger car. I wanted an original Ai Weiwei. I wanted a Yoshitomo Nara. The more I wanted, the more I had to work. It’s a dopamine death trap.”

As opinionated as they come, Lim is a firebrand in the local art world. He bitches about the short end of the stick that newer, younger artists are getting. He kvetches about self-censorship or the lack of support from panels and organisations. Art is a luxury we need to afford. And yet, he will not be the one to save the art scene. Not in the way you think. Like the Baptiser, Lim is preparing the way for the artist that will make it big.

“Joseph Schooling, Stephanie Sun, JJ Lin, they are important,” he says, almost declaratively, “because they show parents there is a future in swimming or singing. It’s possible.”

Then, the corner of his lips turned upwards, his tongue fully in cheek, “At least, if one of them becomes a superstar, I’ll get a free painting out of it.” He laughs. “That’s the dream.”

Photography Lavender Chang
Art Direction Joan Tai

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