Art What! Arts Interview Singapore

Art What!: An interview with centenarian artist Lim Tze Peng

If you met artist Lim Tze Peng in his studio or an exhibition, one of the first questions he’s likely to ask is ‘have I improved?’

Considering he’s already 100 years old, you’d think that he’s already at the peak of his career. But Mr Lim is not like other artists, and is always looking at what comes next, and not what comes before, a trait that has led him to surpass himself time and time again.

All this is celebrated in new exhibition Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100, which exhibits about 20 new works Mr Lim completed over the last year in his studio during the pandemic, and launched last Tuesday at The Arts House, alongside a biographical book of the same name by Woon Tai Ho. We asked Mr Lim several questions about his life and his work, and found out exactly why he still does what he does today. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: It’s been said that you have a tendency to ask whether you’ve improved each time you produce and show new works. Even with such a powerful legacy behind you, what further levels of achievement and recognition do you still hope to receive, now and in the future?

Tze Peng: I believe in lifelong learning, and one can always improve, however old. At every stage in life, our knowledge, our talent and the circumstances around us are different. And we use this combination of factors to propel us forward. I seek breakthroughs in art, in other words, to reach higher levels of creativity and innovation. Recognition is not as important as self improvement and fulfilment.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: Nowadays, everyone’s a critic. In the journey towards self-improvement, how do you decide whose opinions and feedback you take into consideration for your own improvements, and whose opinions are just criticism for criticism’s sake?

Tze Peng: Everyone’s opinion is important. Over time, I have developed a group of close friends whose opinions I treasure because they are honest and do not say things just to make me happy.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: It’s certainly not every day that you hear of a hundred year old artist still actively working and having exhibitions. What is your secret behind maintaining your passion for your art for so long, and how you continue to stay inspired?

Tze Peng: To live to a hundred is a privilege. And I take this privilege seriously, I don’t waste even an hour. At this stage in my life, there is nothing left except art. Indeed, art gives me life, without it am nothing. My last work inspires me, my next work needs to be better.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: Life has never been a straight road for you, with your share of struggles across many aspects of your life. Do you think that with the way the world has changed, it’s easier or more difficult to be an artist these days?

Tze Peng: It was difficult for me back then, and I am sure it is difficult for the younger generation now. Unless society sees art as important, artists will always struggle.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: The exhibition will be accompanied by a book by Woon Tai Ho. Tell us more about the process of working with Tai Ho, and why you decided to entrust him with recording your life’s story in a single book?

Tze Peng: I have had prior experience working with Tai Ho. He wrote My Kampong My Home and I was happy with it, the style is light and conversational yet substantial. He observed me and did not intrude while I worked. His observations have been sharp. The book is as much about me as it is about my art. I appreciate that.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: Do you think that the art of ink belongs to artists of a previous generation, and will one day be phased out? Do you think the youth of today have enough respect for pioneer artists? Or does it even matter, and that they should press on and forge their own path instead?

Tze Peng: There may be more and more ways and means of artistic expression, introducing new mediums but ink will endure. It has survived centuries and it will survive many more.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: Over the years, you’ve moved away from realism and landscapes to more calligraphy and ‘painting with feelings’. Was there any particular reason why your art has evolved this way? Even with your current degree of expertise, who do you turn to when you want to learn something new in your art, considering you’re probably one of the most senior and well-respected artists today?

Tze Peng: I have always done Chinese calligraphy and my abstracts are very much influenced by it. My abstracts will evolve, but I suspect the influence of calligraphy will always be there. I still refer to art books and examine paintings from East and West. I will always have an open mind and be receptive to new influences. Having said that, I am also introspective. I look within myself and my past experiences and build on them.

Installation view of Soul of Ink. Photo Credit: Terence Tan.

Bakchormeeboy: Did you ever set out on your artist journey wanting to leave behind a legacy? What do you hope people remember you for in the future?

Tze Peng: My legacy is my body of work. I hope there will be a place where the public can see these works one day, perhaps a public gallery dedicated to them.

Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 is open to the public at The Arts House from 15th to 30th June 2021, 11am to 8pm. (10am to 2pm only on 30th June) Admission is free but registration is required. To register, visit the website here

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