To step into a Won Ju Lim installation is to enter a dreamworld that’s inside out and turned around. Won Ju Lim: Castings — a 15-year survey of Lim’s work at Sacramento State’s University Library Gallery — elegantly brings together the overarching themes that have occupied the artist throughout her career: how we perceive and interrogate the spaces we inhabit, both physical and psychological.
The exhibition, curated by Kelly Lindner, begins with Lim’s newest work, That Sense of Complexity… (2023), an enchanting installation in 12 parts that features scale models, crystal goblets and other everyday objects she has collected over the years. Set on rotating platforms and lit individually, Lim creates, quite literally, a moving image — one that pulls from the first volume of Marcel Proust’s novel, Remembrance of Things Past, as well as from the artist’s imagination. The titles of the individual works within the installation, taken from the novel, read like a poem:
That sense of the complexity of the Bois de Boulogne
which made it an artificial place
and, in the zoological sense of the word,
I captured again, this year,
as I crossed it on my way to Trianon,
on one of those mornings, early in November,
when, in Paris, if we stay indoors,
being so near and yet prevented from witnessing
the transformation scene of autumn,
which is drawing so rapidly to a close without our assistance,
we feel a regret for the fallen leaves that becomes a fever.
Each piece of the installation casts shadows on walls of a darkened room; they shift constantly as the platforms rotate, making it hard to catch the same moment twice or even take in the entire installation at a glance. Each vignette tells a part of the story, but it is fragmented, much like the slippery character of memory itself. Both times I visited, I saw viewers expressing delight at the wonder Lim created through this cinematic landscape.
Won Ju Lim was born in 1968 in Gwangju, South Korea, and lives and works in Los Angeles. She originally studied architecture but later realized that she was less interested in making buildings than in the psychological aspects of space. However, that initial interest in architecture, what it can tell us about ourselves and the world, has occupied Lim throughout her career.
Lim’s work in the main room highlights these preoccupations. Kiss D3 (2007), the earliest piece in the exhibition, is, at first glance, a Donald Judd-inspired lightbox that casts colorful, geometric shadows reminiscent of stained glass. This sculpture is part of a larger series of works (all titled Kiss) based on the mid-century modern Case Study Houses in Los Angeles. The houses, designed between 1945 and 1966 by some of the most famous architects of the day (including Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen), were a proposed answer to the post-WWII housing shortage. To create the sculptures, Lim used architectural models made of colored plexiglass based on the plans of the houses and inserted them into the boxes, which, when lit from above, cast geometrically patterned shadows. In so doing, she distills their essences — light, space, movement — while complicating their original function by turning them into decorative objects: markers that chart the artist’s continued fascination with how we use and inhabit space.
Baroque Pet Shop (2010), one of the most significant projects represented in the exhibition, came out of Lim’s years-long fascination with an increasingly dilapidated live-feed pet shop near her home in Los Angeles. Likening the run-down store to Baroque architecture, she was able to make sense of the horror and fascination she had with the place by thinking about it in Baroque terms: shifts in scale, interiors within interiors and a focus on theatricality.
Her research at the time took her to several European cities, including St. Petersburg, Vienna, Munich and Prague. Baroque Pet Shop: Model C – St. Petersburg (2010) shows a model of the Russian city pared down to basics, recognizable only through the well-known shapes of its most famous landmarks. The result is
anti-Baroque — a minimalist vision in gold and white. By reducing the majesty of that city to its essential forms and turning the pet shop into a grand Baroque interior, Lim astutely plays with our relationship to the spaces we inhabit.
Lim’s Kitty sculptures — Kitty in Black, Kitty in Pink Plexi and Kitty in Magenta and Orange (all 2010) operate similarly, revealing not just how Lim turns her surroundings into objects of fascination and dissection, but also a sense of humor. These mixed media sculptures, based on cat trees, are familiar to anyone who cohabitates with a feline. For Lim, they are the perfect object of scrutiny: a space of exposure and protection for its inhabitants. In Baroque Pet Shop: Sculpture A and Baroque Pet Shop: Sculpture C (both 2010), Lim abstracts the object even further by obscuring links to the original form. Throughout this series, Lim elasticizes, pushes, pulls and reshapes the world by probing form and function.
Another major body of work featured in the exhibition is Raycraft is Dead (which, full disclosure, was the first exhibition I curated at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2015). A subject that occupied her for years, it came out of a decade-long dispute between Lim and her next-door neighbor (Mr. Raycraft) who previously owned her property before splitting it in two. As he grew increasingly confused in his elderly years, he repeatedly encroached on Lim’s space, resulting in arguments about ownership and access. The project born of that conflict includes two large sculptures, Bastard and Corner, and two collages, In My Absence (floor plan and section) and In My Absence (Section) (all 2014). Bastard, the centerpiece of the installation, is a motorized, rotating model of both houses hung from the ceiling. Beneath the work, a mirror shows the underside of the sculpture, revealing a mashup of each house’s floorplan — a bastardized version of each. Because the sculpture itself moves, our point of view constantly shifts, creating a different experience each time you look (a phenomenon Lim explores to even greater effect in the opening installation, That Sense of Complexity…).
Corner, named for its location in the room, also features a model of Lim’s house. The catch here is that the sightline into it is through an opening facing a corner. Thus, the interior becomes visible only through a four-inch gap between the sculpture and the false wall. In previous iterations, it was installed in an actual corner, where the artist cut into the wall to reveal ghosts of past exhibitions. Like a palimpsest, it allows viewers to see the historical layers of a building, while at the same time altering the space in which it is installed and becoming a part of that same history. In this installation, a false corner was constructed because the gallery lacked one into which the artist could cut — a quirk of the space revealed through this work. Although the false wall changes the nature of the piece, it produces a different experience. Here, a mirror reflects the interior of the sculpture, as well as the viewer. We see ourselves in the space, but never fully. And although we expect — at times even demand — access to people, places, and art objects, Lim continuously refuses to grant us that access.
The two collages, In My Absence (floor plan and section) and In My Absence (Section), are cross sections of Lim’s house, featuring a cast of uninvited guests: bugs, mold and other lifeforms. They, too, poke fun at notions of access and desire. Although the collages resemble architectural plans with useful information, they are the stuff of a homeowner’s nightmare. While we try to limit those who enter our space, some inhabitants, Lim seem to be saying, pay no heed, pointing to the absurdity of our efforts.
Another sculpture, Inglewood (2023), probes the stickiness of memory. It’s based on the artist’s memories of her family home in Los Angeles. Originating from a mold, it was cast, recast, and finally made in latex, which Lim turned inside out, moving further from the truth with each iteration. About memory Lim has said: “Remembering is never about having an accurate account. Memory is a production of disturbances, conflations, and imaginations. A memory of my first home, for example, is a memory of a memory of a memory….” 1
The exhibition concludes by returning to Proust. Here, the title-turned-poem at the outset of the show reappears in a 39-minute projection, titled Casting II, a meditation on Proust and his ideas around memory – and, on the act of making the film. In a voiceover, we hear recited text from In Search of Lost Time as well as the memories of Proust’s housekeeper and secretary, Céleste Albaret, who worked for the writer the last ten years of his life. The film unfolds like a dream or a series of scattered memories — non-narrative and fragmented – and like a dream, it’s hard to describe, but while watching, we see something that jolts our own memory: Lim’s hands constructing the same sculptures from The Sense of Complexity seen at the beginning. Not only has she inserted herself into the film, she’s made us conscious of the fact that we’ve inserted ourselves into it through the act of watching. While much of the work in the exhibition is about denying access to spaces and what that means, Casting II and The Sense of Complexity… allow us, finally, to enter Lim’s inner space and all the delights it holds.
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Won Ju Lim: “Castings” @ University Library Gallery, Sacramento State through December 8, 2023.
In conversation: Won Ju Lim with Cassandra Coblentz, independent curator, November 2, 4-5:30 pm, Orchard Suite, Sac State Student Union, 2nd Floor.
About the author: Susie Kantor is associate curator and exhibition department head at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, UC Davis. Recent projects include Alicia Eggert: This Present Moment, Loie Hollowell: Tick Tock Belly Clock, From Moment to Movement: Picturing Protest in the Kramlich Collection, and coordinating the museum’s presentation of Young, Gifted and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art. She previously worked at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where she co-curated Bay Area Now 8 and Tania Bruguera: Talking to Power/Hablandole al Poder, and served as the coordinating curator for Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art and The Body Electric.