From tiny baby heads squashed into sardine cans to a slice of tart full of miniature human organs, the creations of Singaporean artist Qixuan Lim are not for the faint-hearted.
The 28-year-old with the Instagram handle @Qimmyshimmy attracts a range of barbed comments. One internet user spams Bible verses on her social media posts in an attempt to “cleanse her soul”. Others slam her works as “disgusting”.
With more than 187,000 followers, she says being hated is an everyday thing for her – and she understands why. Her macabre pieces – almost always photographed in pretty containers against tasteful backgrounds of pastel pink or pristine white – frequently elicit raw emotions, and often a squirm of disgust.
But while many are quick to judge Lim’s artistic rendering of baby heads and organs, some take time to understand her challenging work and express admiration for her bold vision and polished technique.
When people finally come to a conclusion about her art, it’s never lukewarm: they either love it or they hate it, she says.
“The work I create is really to challenge what is our idea of beautiful and ugly, or tasteful and tasteless,” Lim says. “One of the interesting reactions I like about my art is those kinds of questions.”
Calling herself apolitical and a neutral observer, Lim is keen to find a way to “capture two worlds and show they can coexist”, and sees her pieces as her own approach to surrealism.
“Before I started sculpting there were a few artists I looked up to who created creepy-cute themes in their work,” she says, including US film director and artist Tim Burton and his compatriot, the painter Mark Ryden.
“I was always drawn to this in-between – where artists would make pieces that are not totally vanilla-cute, but also not grotesque and scary. My aesthetic sensibilities have been shaped by my love for fantasy stories and old curiosities.”
Although she says her art does not represent “one side of the fence”, Lim understands that it will be interpreted in different ways and according to various agendas.
She once received an unexpected response from a woman who had had an abortion and came across her art on Instagram.
“This girl reached out to me to thank me because she said that after looking at my art she managed to face a certain reality that she was trying to avoid for a really long time. She saw my post, she was forced to encounter it and it was very painful, but it helped her to heal,” Lim says.
“She wrote this long message to me, but I did not know how to respond. I never intended for my art to have that message, but it happened to move someone in a way I’d never imagined.”
As well as creating her mini-sculptures, Lim has a full-time job working as a user experience designer. She says she juggles the two easily because of the duality she sees between her day job and the art that she still considers as moonlighting.
Her job requires logic and pragmatism, she says, whereas her art takes her into a dreamlike whimsical state. The emotional difference helps her keep the two separate in her mind.
On her Instagram page Lim brands herself an “accidental sculptor”.
She began sculpting with polymer clay in 2013 as part of an external apprenticeship programme focused on youth art while studying for a bachelor’s degree in art, design and media at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Her first models of baby heads were made with some leftover polymer clay she had lying around.
Polymer clay is a versatile product that, like the more commonly known mineral clay, hardens in an oven. Containing a basis of PVC resin and liquid plasticiser, it can be moulded, painted and used in finely detailed work.
It was around Chinese New Year seven years ago that Lim decided to make baby head sculptures and encase them in the empty shells of pistachio nuts – a popular snack eaten during the festive period.
Many of her friends responded positively when she uploaded photos of the piece to social media, which encouraged her to continue creating.
Her parents, who were initially apprehensive and confused, have now come to terms with her art. Her mother even gives her ideas for new pieces.
“Both my parents are very supportive, although they still find it weird, and they are quite receptive to the practice in general.”
It was during her first solo show at the Temporary Arts Centre in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, where she was studying for a master’s degree in information design at the Design Academy Eindhoven, that she was given the idea of creating a series of works based on desserts.
“I was talking to a curator about my first collection and she said if I want to work with something that everyone associates with being beautiful and desirable, what else can I do other than desserts,” she says. “So that’s how I started making a whole series on really pretty French pastries.”
Her dessert-themed works are her favourite pieces, she says, but she is always considering other possibilities and she constantly receives other food-art ideas from friends, family and online fans. As a nod to her Chinese heritage, she has also crafted a series based on dim sum.
Her work has been displayed in cities around the world including Melbourne, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York. Her most recent exhibition was at the Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo as part of its “Modern Panic” show of provocative, surreal and controversial artists in November.
Her art was very popular with visitors, says James Elphick, founder and director of Guerilla Zoo, the contemporary arts organisation that put together the show.
“QimmyShimmy’s work is a wonderful juxtaposition of delectable wholesomeness and macabrely creepy,” he says.
“Her clever combination of universally recognised and delicious foods with tiny body parts is adorably disturbing. These works were very well received by the public, with many of them double-taking once they got in closer to see the details.”
Also last year, Lim was also invited to be a mentor for a competition on an online creative arts platform.
The Ubisum by Ubies Asian Review Tournament connects budding artists to mentors across Asia, with mentors giving advice to their assigned proteges in a bid to stimulate co-creation and cross-border collaboration across the continent.
Lim’s one-of-a-kind works are sold exclusively through the galleries with which she collaborates; prices typically range from around US$700 (S$1000) to US$2,400, while pieces in her dim sum series sell for about US$1,400 a piece.
Although her sculptures are popular and critically successful, Lim says she has no plans to move into mass-market production any time soon; she feels her art is “not ready for it yet”. Her current focus is on networking and making contacts in the art world, and learning from her peers and experts.
“I feel that for the first few years of my career, what is of more value is learning from people who have more experience, such as curators, who have more art networks and insights,” she says.
Lim will unveil a new series of work in June as part of “The House of the Rising Light” exhibition at the independent Dorothy Circus Gallery in both Rome and London.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.