A desire to find belonging and bring completeness to an identity fractured from the effects of racism and efforts to ‘assimilate’ as a child of Chinese migrant parents in 50’s Brisbane, has fuelled a career spanning three decades that has brought the 63-year-old artist international acclaim.
Lindy’s rise to prominence in the 80’s marked a period of transformation spanning some three decades that saw her work respond to shifts in the Australian psyche. It was a period of rapid Asian migration, continued debates on culture and identity, and the rise in reactionary politics and the rhetoric of anti-immigration advocates such as Pauline Hanson.
A deeply thoughtful Buddhist, Lindy’s work is part zen logic; the act of putting pen or brush to paper and letting the universe take over; and part remedy to the divided self. Her early work sought to reconcile a mixed heritage, feeling neither Chinese or Australian, but both. A deep sense of pain, and darkness underpinning her preliminary style, she often appropriated pieces of European portraiture in order to reproduce them as over-worked, poor copies of themselves as a way to challenge the authenticity of Western artistic practice.
Australian culture had a bit of a second-hand feel to it, she remarked at the time – we had become bad copies of Europe – and the copied, ‘misregistered’ style was a way to represent this sense of diminishment from the original. A development of this style saw the artist move onto canvas, combining imagery of ancient Chinese figures using a mix of contemporary and traditional colours in an almost Warhol-esque, grid-like manner. Each identical, yet subtly changing face capturing a moment of introspection. The intentionally flawed, copied style a way of representing her experience – I felt split and divided, it was extremely painful.
Listening to Lindy recount her childhood experience as Australia grappled with increased anti-Asian sentiment after the war is heartbreaking. The pain in her voice palpable, in an interview in the short film Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom –‘When you’re called a slanty-eye or a slopehead from the age of three, you do begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with you’.
Recalling the ritual visits to the Chinese club in Brisbane with her mother and father, and the awkward fraudulence she felt at not sharing a direct connection to either China or Hong Kong at the time.
An enduring gratitude for her parents, and a desire to recognise the sacrifice and hardships they endured in relocating to Australia began to present itself in her later works, which combined imagery from family photo albums with a technique of ink and wax splattering that was reminiscent of an ancient style practised by Zen Buddhists. In the 2003 installation Birth and Death, Lindy used over 100 oversized Chinese accordion books, each filled with a number of monochromatic, imperial red portraits of family members both living and deceased, to create a type of fully immersive family-tree.
The artist set out to create a work that chronicled several generations of her family moving between China and Australia, and dedicated the piece to her nephew Ben, who had just lost his battle with cancer at the young age of 20. Set in a darkened room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the portraits took on a fierce red glow both dramatic and calm, a stillness captured by the artists’ husband photographer Robert Scott-Mitchell, which went on to win the National Photographic Portrait Prize.
Lindy’s enduring quest to reconcile and ‘restore that which has been lost’ has moved to a lighter, more transcendent practice that explores the Buddhist theory that eternity is not in some elusive time or place, but in the here and now. An exploration into the elemental, the process of flow and change, particularly the element of fire, led to the realisation of works like Cosmos – A Fire of Life (pictured below) which uses pieces of polished, flung bronze and areas of intentional negative space to create patterns that represent the beautiful infinity of the universe.
A recent collaboration with artist Lyndall Jones on the Garden of Fire and Water project in Avoca, a former gold rush town near Ballarat, is the first in what is hopefully many large-scale public art projects that embody a unique Chinese-Australian vernacular, that Lindy feels goes to recognising our shared history and the invaluable contribution Asian migrants have made to Australian culture.
Her passion for increasing such awareness led to her involvement with 4A, The Centre of Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, which was established to promote the work of Asian and Asian-Australian artists as well as fostering improved cultural relations by opening the lines of dialogue and discourse.
Recently Lindy was appointed to lead a team of urban designers, landscape architects and even a Feng Shui expert to bring to life her New Century Garden project, spanning two recently pedestrianised blocks between Ultimo Road and Thomas Lane in Sydney’s Chinatown. A work five years in the making, and part of the City’s long-term plan to ‘reinstate the heart of Chinatown’, her vision to celebrate the heritage of the site delivered a contemporary interpretation of traditional Chinese gardens via new seating areas forged from natural elements including boulders and scholars rocks, and decorative paving in a concentric pattern. The regeneration culminated with the installation of a series of perforated dome sculptures known as Cloud Gate, dramatically suspended above the streetscape.
When asked to respond to the question of how age has impacted her practice, her sense of self, Lindy responded, ‘Time makes us more resilient, give us a depth of experience. Age also allows me to see somehow that even though there have been stages in life that have been confusing, painful and lost – looking back now, I realise there has always been a path.’
‘Miraculously that path was created simply by being faithful to something I care about, and that is making art. A few weeks ago I was in Florence. I was inspired by something that Michelangelo wrote – at the age of 80, he felt that all the conceits of youth had dropped away and he was finally able to do his real work.
Lindy Lee is currently part of the Waves exhibition at Sydney’s Sullivan and Strumpf Gallery curated by Kate Britton. She is also part of the Tarrawarra Biennial: From Will to Form, with artists Sanné Mestrom and Hiromi Tango at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art until late November. Her recently unveiled installation Tower of Ten Billion Stars is located in Sanya Bay, the Hainan Island of China.