Lindy Lee grew up in Brisbane in the 1960s, the daughter of Chinese parents who left Guandong when the Communists came to power. She is ethnically Chinese but Australian born and bred, a duality that has coloured her entire life. She remembers being the only Chinese face in her classes at school, which meant she could never quite fit in, no matter how desperately she wanted to be just like the other kids. In later life her lack of Chinese language skills would make it equally difficult to reclaim an ancestral cultural heritage.
To become the artist she is today Lee had to get lost before she could be found. She had to learn to embrace her own confusion and insecurity, transforming these frailities into a source of strength. Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, reveals an artist for whom each new body of work has been a means of self-discovery. It may be the most fundamental reason for making art.
This exhibition, for which MCA director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor has acted as curator, is the story of a spiritual education. It begins in the early 1980s, during Lee’s days as a postgraduate student at Sydney College of the Arts. She is groping in the dark, suffering from that familiar malaise that afflicts so many aspiring artists: ‘How do you make art when everything has already been done?’
Her breakthrough came via the photocopier, when she copied an image by Jan Van Eyck and became fascinated by the sooty, carbonised transformation that had taken place. Running the copy through the machine again and again made the image progressively darker, as if the mists of time were closing in. She had hit upon a technique that alluded to both our estrangement from history and the creative exhaustion of the present.
As this was the heyday of the short-lived Postmodernist fad these themes were highly congenial, even fashionable. Lee’s work was viewed as a form of strategic appropriation, a critical commentary on the traditions and institutions of art. She says she was “grateful” for these interpretations, but now realises there were deeper motivations at work.
While still seen as a great appropriator, Lee hit upon another stylistic innovation. She would trace the outlines of a favourite Old Master painting onto canvas, cover the surface with wax, and scrape out a dark, shadowy version of the image in which a smothering blackness was tinged with a bloody red or an evocative cobalt blue. These pictures had a real sense of drama, and have not lost their edge. One work, White Sacrament (1985), was acquired by James Mollison for the National Gallery of Australia. It features El Greco’s St. Andrew holding a white cross that glows like two fluorescent light tubes by Dan Flavin.
The reference to a wellknown Minimalist was not entirely coincidental, as Lee had an abiding interest in abstract painters such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt. Her shadowy appropriations of the Old Masters might be seen as a way of combining past and present, as if the figures of Renaissance painting were seething beneath a layer of Minimalist blankness. The heroes of myth and the Bible struggled against a billowing darkness that symbolised the spiritual fog of the present.
While still working through this series Lee had an epiphany, speaking on a forum. “I’m doing these paintings because I’m declaring I belong to the West,” she said, then instantly realised that people who really belong to the West don’t have to declare anything – it goes without saying.
But if Lee wasn’t “of the west”, neither was she of the east. Stuck somewhere in-between she began to reconsider her work so far. Could it be that her fascination with copies sprang from the fact that she herself was a copy? She was the reproduction of a Chinese person with none of the cultural associations, an Aussie girl who would never fit the stereotypes.
From the early to mid 1990s everything began to change, with multi-panelled wall pieces in which printed faces alternate with splashes of ink and blocks of bright, pure colour. These are transitionary works, influenced by her embrace of Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism, which significantly altered her worldview.
The work Lee has made over the past two-and-a-half decades is the fruit of profound introspection. She abandoned the Old Masters in favour of her own family photos, scaled up, toned grey, presented like episodes from a dream. She went to China to study calligraphy, and discovered she preferred to drip and splash ink onto a surface, rather than slave away at characters she could not read. Her link with the past lay in the medium itself, with a universal language of gesture as opposed to the codes of a specific script.
Lee’s acceptance of her own dual identity has led to an exploration of binary opposites, such as fire and water, matter and void. She has created works by burning holes into large pieces of paper, or by splashing molten lead onto the floor of a foundry. Both these activities incorporate a mixture of control and randomness. She will decide on an overall format but each hole made with a soldering iron entails a spontaneous decision.
When it comes to flinging molten metal, everything depends on where she places her hands on the implement and the power of the throw. Each frozen splatter retains its liquid appearance. She imposes order on these shapes by arranging them in a geometric form on the wall.
The surprising culmination of Lee’s journey into the self is that she is becoming known as a maker of large-scale public sculptures. She has had a succession of works installed in cities in China and Australia, including The Life of Stars (2018) in front of the Art Gallery of South Australia; and has recently won a commission for China Town, New York City.
For the MCA exhibition Lee has created a room-sized installation called Moonlight Deities, which uses heavily pierced slabs of paper to conjure a layering effect. Through one set of circles we see another and another. As we move into the room we experience a changing set of patterns, changing shadows on the wall.
In front of the MCA, facing Circular Quay, Lee’s sculpture Secret World of a Starlight Ember has become Sydney’s new favourite selfie magnet. A five-metre-wide ellipsis made from stainless steel, the surface features a mass of tiny holes. At night the sculpture is lit from within, turning it into a glowing vision of the cosmos, a vast eye-shaped cluster of stars tethered by some miracle to a humble pedestal.
Public sculpture is the cause of more arguments and scandals than almost any other branch of the visual arts, but Lindy Lee – an artist once known for her photocopies – has found a method that is pleasing both public and cognoscenti. As the title suggests, Secret World’ keeps its secrets until after dark, but even in broad daylight this mirror-bright ring of stainless steel has a seductive presence. It’s ironic, but ultimately inspirational, that an artist who had to struggle to understand her own place in the world is now making works that address the universe.
Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop
Museum of Contemporary art, 2 October, 2020 – 28 February, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 October, 2020