One of Australia’s most successful painters and sculptors, Lindy Lee, in conversation with curator and writer, Tian Zhang.
In Italy, looking at a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, Lindy Lee decided to become an artist.
“I remember being in the Uffizi Museum, probably about 1977 or 1978, and I came across this incredibly powerful painting,” she recalls.
“It was Judith Slaying Holofernes, and it was violent—a woman beheading a man out of vengeance—a compelling painting. And then I looked at the title and the artist and realised it was a woman.”
Lee made headlines in September when it was revealed the National Gallery of Australia had commissioned her to create Ouroboros, an immersive public sculpture to mark their fortieth anniversary. It will be her most immense outdoor work to date, due to be completed in early 2024.
The institution said it ‘will be the biggest investment in a work by the Gallery and will be funded through the National Gallery’s Collection Development Fund.’
Born in Brisbane in the mid-1950s, Lindy grew up in a Chinese family amid the White Australia policy. While she was creative from a very young age, art was not a part of her upbringing, like many in immigrant households. As a result, Lindy didn’t think it was possible to be an artist and instead obtained a teaching degree. She then became a high school art teacher, a profession that left her deeply unsatisfied.
Lindy remembers a ‘long, dark night’ where she grappled with the ‘preposterous idea’ that she should become an artist. “Both directions were unhappy,” she says. “Which is the greater unhappiness? Which is the unhappiness you were prepared to live with?” Lindy recalls thinking. “If I didn’t try to be an artist, then I would regret that for the rest of my life.”
As Lindy and I talk over a video call, I’m struck by the difficulties she must have faced as a Chinese-Australian woman attempting to forge an artistic career in the 1970s. “There were no role models, as a Chinese woman or a woman to be an artist in Australia,” she explains. “Even in the international art world, there were no Asian artists back in the 70s.”
The work of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was a revelation. “You have to appreciate how stunning that was to me, a woman in the [17th century] who’d had the strength to paint such a powerful thing.” Seeing Gentileschi’s painting gave Lindy the courage to confront her fears and enrol in London’s Chelsea School of Art. “Honestly, I think from that moment I haven’t looked back,” she says.
Lindy sits in her studio on Arakwal Country (Northern Rivers, NSW). In the background, I can hear whipbird calls and, occasionally, her dogs barking. She appears relaxed; she explains it’s because she is tired, but to me, Lindy has the ease of someone who has realised her calling in life.
I asked her if she always wanted to be an artist. “I love this question,” she replies. “I think I wanted to be an artist ever since I was three years old.”
She reflects on a vivid memory of being a young child lying on her stomach on the verandah of her family’s Kangaroo Point house in Brisbane. She’s watching dust motes dancing in the sunlight and is overcome by a burning desire to capture the magic of that moment in a drawing. “I remember it because, in fact, that’s what I’m doing [now]—capturing something like starlight.”
Indeed, one can see a connection between child Lindy’s fascination with glimmering dust particles and recent works like Secret World of a Starlight Ember (2020), installed permanently in Circular Quay. A shimmering stainless steel ovoid form is punctured with thousands of holes, resembling a myriad of starry constellations. The sculpture was part of Moon in a Dew Drop (2020), a survey of Lindy’s four-decade practice at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Moon in a Dew Drop was a significant moment. For Lindy, it was her most comprehensive survey to date, showcasing the breadth and depth of her artistic career. But, more broadly, it is one of a very few survey shows to recognise an Asian-Australian woman artist, with institutions tending to overlook Australian artists of colour and Australian women artists of colour even more so for such prestigious opportunities.
Visitors were able to encounter Lindy’s early paintings, where she appropriated images from the Western canon. Lindy would photocopy these images from art history textbooks, placing the copies in a grid and adding strokes of black paint. These works were an attempt to understand where she belonged, both within art history and in life.
“The photocopy was the perfect metaphor for me in that I was, and I am, the bad copy,” Lindy explains. “I’m a bad copy of being Chinese—the girl doesn’t even speak Cantonese because it was repressed in my childhood—and I am such a very flawed copy of what it is to be Western.”
Despite questions around authenticity, Lindy’s early works were nonetheless an attempt to place herself within the Western canon because that’s where she thought she belonged. However, this changed in the 1980s after taking part in a conference on Australia and Asia in the visual arts. Lindy was confused by the invitation to speak, explaining in her talk that her paintings were a declaration of belonging to the Western tradition. As she spoke, the realisation hit her like a thunderbolt: “Anybody who belongs does not have to declare that she belongs. Because if you belong, it’s not even a question.”
It was a turning point in Lindy’s life and career. “I had to forgive myself for being Chinese,” she reflects.
Lindy moved away from using Western imagery and began exploring her family history. “Instead of plundering art history books,” she explains, “I plundered my family’s photo albums.” A significant work during this period was Birth and Death (2002), which honoured Lindy’s nephew Ben, who had recently passed away. First, Lindy found images of every family member going back three generations. Then, using photocopy processes, she compiled 100 Chinese accordion books, each showing a relative at a different age. Finally, the accordion books were installed on the ground in waves, representing Ben’s place — as well as her own — within the waves of generations.
Lindy also started to delve into Eastern philosophies as a way to connect with her cultural heritage. Recent bodies of her work were inspired by early mediation experiences and the deep resonance she feels with the cosmos. Conflagrations from the End of Time (2011) was a series of large-scale black and white scrolls pierced using a soldering iron to produce many burnt holes. The immersive work Moonlight Deities (2019-20) comprised large black paper sheets with circular cutouts, casting magnificent crater-like shadows around the room. Lindy has also been experimenting with flung bronze, a process that creates mesmerising irregular forms.
While these newer works have taken a more abstract turn, featuring repetitive markings, punctures or shapes, they still extend the same conceptual exploration. “[It’s] still the same question of identity. But what I love about Zen philosophy is the question is not ‘who are you?’ but ‘what are you?’ and that’s a much bigger question.” She explains that Buddhist philosophy and mediation have directed her away from inquiries of who are you—identity, authenticity and belonging—and towards a deeper exploration of what are you—the self.
“When you meditate, there are certain conditions where you realise that the reality or the boundaries of self don’t end with your skin. They just flow out into the world, and the world flows back into you, and it’s at that point where things flow in and flow out—that’s ‘what you are’. And you can dance with that.”
While Lindy acknowledges the importance of identity and the questions that led to her earlier bodies of work, she has also found ways to transcend their limitations. “In some ways, I feel liberated from the questions of identity. I don’t have to go there anymore. There’s a much better game to play. And it is the vastness of self within the hugeness of cosmos.”
When I ask Lindy if she has advice for emerging artists, she says, “First of all, have faith in yourself. That’s a life lesson. And that faith in yourself has got nothing to do with ego. Your ego is just something that tries to project the best image of you. But to have respect for yourself is a different thing.”
She adds, “Being a person of colour, being different, is painful because we all want to belong. But it is our gift. We are forced to entertain really deep existential questions. So embrace them because that is the substance of your work. If you’re true to that, it can take you to extraordinary places — and I don’t mean in terms of making a brilliant career — but becoming a really valuable part of this wondrous universe. It’s holding up the sky in your own way.”
Moon in a Drew Drop gave Lindy a chance to reflect on the last forty years. “There are plenty of times in my life as an artist, and as a human being, I felt lost,” she says. But, being able to see her artistic journey laid out, she realised, “Even though I might have felt I was lost, there was always some sense of true north.”
Although she acknowledges there is still a long way to go, Lindy is encouraged by the changes in her lifetime—from the White Australia era she was born into, to multiculturalism now. Even the candid discussion we have today, one Chinese-Australian to another, would never have happened when Lindy was younger.
She tells me one of the most meaningful experiences she gained from Moon in a Dew Drop was the number of young Asian people, particularly young women, touched by the exhibition. Some were even crying. “They found themselves in my work, somehow, and that made their lives valid.” She adds, “That’s kind of like a ripple effect into the lives of people. People will take that on board and become stronger in themselves, feel their own sense of value more.”
I’m reminded of twenty-something Lindy standing in front of Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting as she says this. If that singular moment spurred her entire artistic journey, how many people of colour—women of colour, like myself—might have that same feeling seeing Lindy’s work. I get a rush thinking about it, this constellation of ripple effects extending out into the cosmos.