Lindy Lee

For Lindy Lee the recording and questioning of self has been a constant point of examination in her practice. As a Chinese-Australian artist, her work has been critical to visualising the experience of Chinese diaspora in a country that has historically whitewashed its multiculturalism. Anchoring her practice and dual identity is her Zen Buddhism, which has propelled her current engagement with the elemental through heat, metal and fire. Now mid-career, Lindy is taking this to epic proportions. In her latest work she is pushing concept and scale with the creation of some of her largest pieces yet. For an artist who has long been in dialogue with her dual transient identities, Lindy Lee is pushing past boundaries and forging her own mark as an international artist.

You have a long history of family travelling to and from China and Australia. Where did your immediate family come from in China?
Guangdong province; my dad came out in 1946 and my mother in 1953. The situation was that my grandfather, my mother’s father had come first, and prior to him my uncle had come. One member of the family was allowed to come during the White Australia Policy and if one person wanted to return he could appoint someone else to come. I was born in Australia in 1954, so I was growing up at the tail end of the White Australia Policy.

So you would have been a teenager when the Whitlam Government came to power, and one of its first international events was to visit China. As a young Chinese woman in Australia what was your reaction?
It was fantastic. There was an exhibition I was involved with in 2008 marking the 35th anniversary of Australia-China Relations. I did a work called ‘Process/Journey’, which was a number of banners of my family from the photo albums from the 1950s and 1960s. I placed them all in the Australian Embassy courtyard and it was an amazing thing. There was a banner of my grandmother who had actually died during that time when the communists began to take over, and she was in prison for some time. She actually died a lonely death because she had been part of the land-owning class prior to the revolution so she was ostracised and nobody was allowed to visit her when she was in prison. When she died she was buried secretly. During the exhibition, every single Red Guard of the Embassy came up to her portrait, touched her face and said what a beautiful woman she was. I cried at that. What had happened is I’d made this work that was in the heart of China – Beijing – but in the heart of Australia, which was the Embassy. A beautiful sort of closure happened and when the guards acknowledged my grandmother there was this really kind of unbelievable healing.

When exploring your Chinese-Australian identity and the experience of diaspora, is your practice internalised or have other artists or thinkers informed you?
Look, I think it is mostly internalised. I could go on about cultural theorists but it was me just trying to be honest to my own experience. It was always this very niggling thing, and I think the best art comes from this place anyway. William Yang said, “You learn to internalise self-hatred, you internalise racism”. That is a very powerful place to make work from because you are supposed to belong, but you don’t.

How did you come to embrace Buddhism and Zen philosophy?
It was in the early 1990s. I’ll put it this way: Jung said “Everything repressed returns as fate”. I spent pretty much all of my first few decades absolutely wanting to run away from the fact that I was Chinese because it was actually pretty painful, you always want to belong, you just do. On one level I started to explore Western art history in those early works, as a way of declaring that is where I belonged on a surface level. But the more I examined that, in terms of belonging, if you have to declare that you belong, then you don’t belong.

When I first started to exhibit, people used to have an attitude where they would say “you know you’re really one of us”, meaning white and Anglo. They would imply that embracing me as an artist it was okay, I could forget I was Chinese. It was very similar to that assimilation policy, it was meant to be a kindness but you have to push away something that you are. All these things began to niggle at me and I became interested in Zen because as I began to study and meditate I realised that the quintessential question in Zen is “what is this that exists?” Not even who you are, it is “what is this that exists – this process of existence?” And the more I studied it and the more I meditated, the more I went into a retreat, it became a passion within me.

So that is a way of reconnecting with your Chinese identity?
Yes. There is a beautiful saying at the entrance of a lot of Zen gardens, “Do not enter here unless you are prepared to meet yourself”. In meditation you have to mediate all the deepest parts of yourself and even the parts that you have exiled.

Have you ever felt compelled to learn Mandarin?
I’ve studied Mandarin 101 about a thousand times and I never quite get past the ‘ni hao’. No, it is curious. I am absolutely driven to connect with my ancestry but I am not driven to learn the language. It is a hell of a commitment and it is a very difficult language to learn, and somehow I have managed to do without.

In your latest series, The Tyranny and Liberation of Distance, you return to photographs you worked with in the 1980s and 1990s. What was the intent behind revisiting those images and situating your family within the Chinese landscape?
Those photographs are again from the period of the 50s and 60s where Australia in a broad sense was in transition. Australia still regarded itself as monocultural, but the reality that the fabric of Australia was multicultural was beginning to take form. There is also a kind of examination of the choices I guess my parents made to actually make a home, with something lost and a nostalgia and longing. A lot of the landscape paintings of the Sung and Tung dynasties are in the shadow world of our existence, as our family wasn’t very able to thoroughly acknowledge or embrace that either. It was assimilation at the time; the reality was that we weren’t encouraged to learn my parents’ tongue and that is a generational thing. Juxtaposing the images and burning the holes through them was a kind of recognition of the turmoil and lack of belonging: that sentiment ran very strongly through my family.

In your early practice you were photocopying works, today you burn patterns into paper and metal. Repetition is a consistent theme throughout your practice. What is its importance to your process?
That is a really good question; I don’t think anyone has asked me that question in relation to the expanse of my history as an artist. When I first started to photocopy there were a number of themes, I didn’t even realise it was about being the bad copy but it was. That repetition was about trying to be inside each moment of being. And repetition has been a really important quality in my work since the very beginning. Now when I am burning holes or drawing circles, with my kind of Zen training this moment is eternity, this very moment. So for me it is about this pitch into eternity – meeting with this moment because in Buddhism eternity isn’t anywhere else but here, there is only this moment of now.

So that mark-making recognises your presence in the moment.
Yes even with the bronze splashes it’s exactly the same – this is the absolute record of this instant. The photocopies were the absolute record of the eternal moment.

There is a vertical movement as you burn into the work, which is reminiscent of the technique in Chinese calligraphy. Is there a conscious engagement with Chinese traditions?
There is a conscious engagement in the sense that the mark, the gesture, is really important in calligraphy. I love the stories of how a great calligraphy master can actually read the frame of mind of the person that made that mark. It is similar to Zen. You have this tradition of hitting a bell before you go and greet your Zen teacher, and your Zen teacher can read your state of mind by the strike of the bell, whether you are wavering or whether you are absolutely present. So your degree of presence can be read. The calligraphy for me as a philosophy of embodiment is very important.

In your mark-making you’ve burnt holes into paper and silk when you collaborated with Akira Isogawa, and now metal. What appeals to you about using fire and heat?
As an artist everything has been entirely intuitive. No matter how intellectual one can become it is totally in your gut. For years I would be drawn to certain materials, and I would spend five years trying to figure out what that connection was, and it’s really being very compelled. So at one point 10 years ago I just had this real compulsion to want to work with fire. So I went to Beijing and locked myself in a studio for two months, it was the middle of winter and I started burning the crap out of paper.

To keep warm?
(Laughs) Yeah it was freezing, Beijing gets very cold. But then I started to read and listen to a lot of podcasts as you do, I have to go into these periods of isolation to do this kind of work. What I love is the way in which Buddhism discusses emotions in terms of the elements. Okay I’m going to get really cheesy and Buddhist here. In terms of fire there is a metaphor called the “fire of delusion”, so delusion in Buddhism is the amount of spin that we perpetually comfort ourselves with. Good spin, bad spin, it’s all just spin. So the metaphor is that we have different kinds of fire: we have bush fires, gas fires, paper fires – it has to do with the fuel – delusion is also a fuel. So in order to meet your delusion and burn them away you have to meet them squarely. The burning was my way of complete meditation for two months, a commitment to burn away as much as the delusion of self as possible.

Working with metal and fire, you are engaging with the material and immaterial. Does it mirror your own material and immaterial connections to your Australian identity?
Yes, that is all-important, the relationship between the material and immaterial, they hinge upon each other. When the fire meets the metal it is written with fire, they are married together, you can’t extricate them, it’s irreparable with the warping that occurs. There is this new vitality that comes about just through the fire. In terms of Chinese heritage and the immaterial, for me, spirit is the invisible things that make us in any given second, and part of that is for me is whatever it is to be Chinese. And that is a really strong pull, I speak to other Chinese-Australians and you can’t escape it.

You are at an exciting stage now in mid-career, how do you weather the highs and lows as an artist?
It is back to the question of authenticity, you have to stay true to that which is essential to you. Through suffering and pain of difference some wee little question is burned, seared into your soul and you are compelled to answer and address that. In terms of the highs and lows, there is good spin and bad spin, there is success and not success – they are the same thing. Success is more pleasant, but it is also a trap too, and lack of success is unpleasant but it is a trap to think that is what you are. You have to just get on with that task, you have to be present and turn up to your own life.

With your practice growing from small-scale works to large public works, how has this challenged you?
I love it, even if a project doesn’t get off the ground. I have had three decades now of gallery practice but somehow, especially with my collaboration with Urban Art Projects (UAP), I just feel freer, larger, huger, possibilities to just think bigger. It sounds like a cliché but you’re invited, literally, to think bigger.

In this thinking bigger, and working with craftsmen to create the large-scale works, does it interrupt the gestural process in your work? Is the artist’s hand still present?
In terms of the flinging of the bronze, that was a process, when I started to work with UAP I said I really wanted to do it myself, which is fun. Although I have a team of people working with me, I actually pretty much hand-place every dot for every hole. I have people, but I direct them, and I also do it. I am giving them advice on the rhythm of those dots and the sequence of those dots. That for me for some crazy reason is what I call fun. It is actually the placing of it, the repetition in each dot. In ‘The life of Stars’ there were over 30,000 holes, which were hand-placed.

When creating the ‘Fire Works’ did that push yourself in having to negotiate with a team of craftsmen to get what you were imagining?
It was wonderful because you have to be articulate and clear about what you want. There is no point of being shy about it. Also, in my experience so far, I have never had to do much negotiation. Whatever I have needed to do, they let me do.

You initially connected to your Chinese heritage through exploring ancient Chinese tradition. Now you have travelled to China with Chinese clients commissioning large public works. What does having these works made in China mean for you and your experience of diaspora?
There is sometimes poetry in that – a young girl who just wanted to be anything but Chinese, and then eventually having to embrace that part of her and going back to China. It has been through stages, I’ve been going there since 1978, so that is a long time. When I first went there I couldn’t have felt more alien and it was very communist. China has changed a lot over these last 40 years so increasingly I feel more comfortable about being there. I also feel more comfortable about being different from the regular Chinese. It’s okay, I am never going to be completely and authentically “Chinese-Chinese” and that’s fine.

Your art has juggled that transient state, between your Chinese and Australian contexts but today what perspective do you have of your dual identity?
I’m not as engaged with questions of cultural identity as I once was, because I am more engaged with questions of cosmos. The thing about identity can be a trap, because you are never just the one thing. Within each of us there are multiples, there is a whole tribe of us. In certain contexts it is fiercely Chinese and in others it’s not, and that is fine. One’s identity is never one thing; it is many things and being okay with that.

Situating your Chinese works in China – is that some kind of symbolic action for you?
It’s beautiful, I think that ‘Life of Stars’ is one of the most significant works I have ever made, and that it is in China and it’s a work that comes out of having embraced Buddhist and Daoist philosophies, that work is riddled with that for me. And to have that in China it is a wonderful thing.

What is your view of multiculturalism in Australia today?
I think Australia’s spirit of place is that negotiation between cultures; it is its spirit of place; it is its energy and vitality. Multiculturalism is absolutely a centre.

EXHIBITION
The Seamless Tomb

Until 14 October
Sullivan+Stumpf, Sydney

Lindy Lee is represented by Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne