On the occasion of Singaporean crochet artist Kelly Limerick’s first solo show with a gallery, contributing writer Michelle JN Lim speaks with her about the evolution of her creative practice, the value of an artist residency, and how her personal experiences inform her recent work.
TEXT: Michelle JN Lim
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
One might be forgiven for mistaking artist Kelly Limerick for a fashion influencer if one were to encounter her on the street. So distinctive is her style of dressing that even on the opening day of her solo show at Cuturi Gallery in Singapore, we had to pause our conversation for a couple of street photographers who requested a quick shoot.
In Singapore where one is perhaps more lauded for fitting in than standing out, this has led the artist to realise that her appearance is sometimes an impediment to her work being perceived on their own merits. As they say in Mandarin, a vase or 花瓶 (hua ping) is someone who is pretty on the outside but lacking in substance on the inside. Limerick finds kinship with this derogatory term, and uses the vase as a key motif in her inaugural solo show, “Unbecoming”.
Though such vessels are typically created out of ceramic, hers are crocheted out of nylon yarn, rendering them useless as crafted objects. She furthermore destroys her painstakingly crocheted works by torching them, using this destructive gesture to distance the works from the realm of crafted domestic object and into that of fine art.
In playing with the tension between opposing meanings and textures, Limerick forces her audience to consider how value is unevenly accorded in the realm of fine art and craft. She asks: what does it take for a crocheted item to be considered as fine art rather than a domestic craft object? At the same time, the works invite one to consider how judgments on value are passed when people regard one another.
The self-taught artist has worked with crochet since she was seven years old, and long grappled with the fraught manner in which worth, labour, and craft are perceived in the fine art world. “Unbecoming” is her way of marshalling her personal struggles with these discrepancies and transmuting them into a body of work that questions the status quo even as it coexists with it.
Let’s talk about the title of the exhibition, “Unbecoming”. What was the intent behind it?
People tend to say this about others who don’t behave in a way that’s expected of them. I guess it’s something that’s been said to me a lot. Back when I was living in Japan, many people I encountered would describe me as 自由すぎる (jiyuu sugiru) when I shared that I had quit my job and was in Japan to do volunteer work without any long-term plans for my future—jiyuu being freedom and sugiru being too much.
And I always thought it was a compliment, until one day I realised that that was not how they had meant it. It was their way of saying, “Good for you that you can do whatever the hell you want.” Although I now know that it’s not intended in a nice way, I must admit that I still personally think of it as a compliment.
Perhaps whether this character trait of yours is positive or negative just depends on the perceiver— like how you’ve titled your pieces in the show, someone or something that is Clingy might be viewed as Committed; conversely someone Stubborn is instead Steadfast from a different vantage point.
Exactly—is it necessarily good to be obedient, for instance? I think this duality is what I like about words in general. In the end it boils down to a judgment of values, and the subjectivity of what something is worth is what I’m trying to explore in “Unbecoming”.
What else are you trying to say with this body of work?
Leading up to this show, I was very curious about how crochet is perceived as an art form, and why is it that I’ve always been considered a crafter rather than an artist. Even up until recently, I would still be approached by people who ask if I want to be featured in an art market as a crafter. I’m fairly certain that this is not something a painter or sound artist would face.
So that’s how difficult it is to break out of the medium, and how difficult it is for people to think of crochet as an art form. Not that there is anything wrong or bad about crafters and makers—I have a lot of respect for people who choose that path. But right now, for myself, I want to explore crochet as an art form.
When did you first decide to pursue crochet as an art form?
It was when I realised that given the amount of creative energy, time, and quality materials going into my work, as well as the fact that they are each unique with a concept of their own, they are already art pieces. The only differentiating factor for my pieces in the early days was that they were functional craft objects like phone pouches or bags.
With “Unbecoming”, I go to the other extreme of making something completely non-functional. Though each work is in the form of a vessel, the fact that they are crocheted makes them unusable, and they are even hollow at their base. I want to see what it takes for crochet to move away from its image as a functional craft object, and into the realm of fine art.
From what you’ve shared thus far, I gather that you have very clear ideas of what makes a good work of art. What happens when you also gauge yourself by that standard?
Everyone is their own harshest critic, right? For a very long time I’ve just felt like I wasn’t good enough. Which is why I must thank Cuturi Gallery for the opportunity—had they not approached me to be a part of their residency programme, I could not have given myself the permission to put everything else aside and devote this time and space to an entire body of new work.
Singapore’s coronavirus lockdown period in 2020 also helped, in the sense that I became incredibly productive during the three months of staying at home. With gigs being cancelled and normal life disrupted, it was almost as if I had been given permission to just stay at home and work. I was so happy doing it that I worked from morning till night without distraction. This period of creation gave me a kind of joy that I had not felt in ages, and the result was the Tamashii (spirit) series that I really enjoyed creating.
I guess that is the value of residencies—the distance that it affords you from your day-to-day obligations, which can be so precious to an artist.
Yeah, every residency offers something different. But I think the base of it is that it allows you to tell yourself that you are entering a space of creation.
Getting to do this gallery residency also gave me the courage to consider that other people might be interested to know about what is within me. Since I was a kid, I have always felt as if people are not interested to know what I really think. It is why, if you notice, I speak really fast all the time. Because people have not wanted to listen to me, I told myself that if I speak faster, I will not waste people’s time. It’s my way of getting my thoughts out before someone can tell me to stop talking.
Thanks for being so willing to reveal this vulnerable side of you. I hope that with this solo show, it shows you that people are curious about what you have to say. Let’s talk about your collaborators for this show—you’ve had assistants in the past, but this is the first time that you’re collaborating with other creatives more extensively. How did you find this process?
With this new body of work, I’m starting to really explore the process-driven nature of my medium. It’s almost performative, and because of that I knew that I definitely wanted to have a video to document it.
Working with film director Joy Song was quite an experience—she was very certain of what she wanted, yet was not demanding at all on set. And she doesn’t waste time. I’ve worked with people who don’t know what they want or are very scared to say what they want, and that always makes things difficult, so I felt that she was great to work with. And of course, she has a very good eye.
With my photographer Clarence Aw, what I connect with him on is how he captures mood. When we first met, he was doing more fashion photography, but his personal social media often features shots of daily life, and his passion for tea and bonsai. It is through his style there that I learnt that he’s a mood capturer. He’s never really shot anything like what he did for me, but I just felt that it would be a good fit based on this mood.
How did you choose whom you collaborated with for this show?
I’m the kind of person who goes very much according to fate. I had a handful of people that I could approach and perhaps others might have been more suitable in some aspects, but I felt that timing, mood and vibe play a part. And when fate presents an opportunity, I will take it.
Finally, let’s talk about something that I know you’ve been wrestling with for a while now. Do you feel that the way you dress is a hindrance to people recognising you for your talent and craft?
Does that change anything about what you do?
I’ve wanted to, but I cannot. I’ve tried for years. I feel that there is a romanticism about artists who never reveal their face, because then the focus is on their work. But I just can’t help but be proud of the looks that I put together every day. I find it exciting to challenge myself not to repeat my outfits, and it’s the same impulse with every new piece of work that I make. I would change something for sure, and when I come up with something new, I’m excited to document it.
It comes from a place of joy.
That’s right. And recently I’m also starting to realise that it’s not that uncommon for people who are models to be artists too. In fact, I follow two of them because their modelling work led me to discover their artwork. How someone looks simply shouldn’t take away from our experience of their work.
23 April – 8 May 2022
Cuturi Gallery, Singapore
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