Lindy Lee

In Issue 51, Courtney Kidd previewed Lindy Lee's show 'Moon in a Dew Drop' at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) as the institution was grappling with the demands of re-scheduling their program.

It is impossible, when talking to Lindy Lee, not to question whether her Buddhist practice or her art making comes first. Such is her commitment to both. Zen Buddhism, a religious philosophy enabling enlightenment through disciplined meditation along with Taoism, a Chinese philosophy based on sourcing harmony with nature, have underpinned Lee’s thinking for decades.

A portrait of Lee meditating by artist Tony Costa won the 2019 Archibald Prize. Lee’s philosophical foundation, and the way art flows from this, is what is intrinsically interesting about her work – and what makes her forthcoming exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) much anticipated.

‘Moon in a Dew Drop’ surveys Lee’s impressive forty-year art practice, taking its title from a book by thirteenth century Japanese writer Dogen Zenji whose philosophy centred on the ‘oneness of practice-enlightenment’. The evocative title proffers a poetic symbol of mutability, giving the viewer, ‘a taste of ‘deep time’ by creating an immersive installation of form and formlessness, light and shadow, voidness and materiality’, says Lee.

A Brisbane-born artist of Chinese cultural background, Lee began carving out a space in the art world in the mid-1980s when she produced paintings focusing on post-modern concerns such as reproduction and questions of authenticity. By repeatedly photocopying images from European Masters, Lee grappled with ideas about the original and the evolving self, trying to align her Chinese Australian background with a wall of Western art history but growing more uncomfortable with the dichotomy.

Works from this period, such as Philosophy of the Parvenu (1990) and Three Vital Seals (1997), will be included in the exhibition. The 1990s was a time when the artist started investigating ancient Chinese philosophies and conceptualising these processes using photographs from her own family history. She created bodies of work that were exhibited in major commercial galleries throughout Australia at that time. Concurrently, her international presence was also evolving and today includes a flotilla of impressive commissions, the most recent being Gateways to Chinatown (2019) in Chinatown, New York.

‘All of what I make encompasses questions of identity and being, generated from early and profound experiences of division and not belonging to either white Australia or to China’, explains the artist.

The MCA survey further highlights Lee’s questioning of the fundamental nature of who she is, of the relationship between the individual and the universe. It includes recent pieces such as True Ch’ien (2018), a series of ten luminous prints on paper recreating the narratives around an ancient Chinese folk tale, its underlying message being to follow your heart to attain a state of wholeness and integrity.

‘The work I’ve been doing for the past decade invokes the more elemental aspects of existence’, says Lee, who often uses fire and water to perforate and stain paper. The paper images, such as Moonlight Deities (2019), evoking the moon as a symbol of birth and death, in turn develop into the larger civic sculptures – collaborations often in association with the entrepreneurial Brisbane-based company Urban Art Projects. Such works by Lee are now located in China, South East Asia, the USA and the Middle East.

One of the evolving challenges with ‘Moon in a Dew Drop’ has been the physical and conceptual creation of Starlight Ember (2020). It is a monumental sculpture for the MCA forecourt at Circular Quay to be made of mirror polished stainless steel. Lee would normally have taken her team of four studio assistants to Shanghai to assist in its fabrication, but COVID-19 has overtaken normality and the making of the object is occurring, in part, in her studio in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales.

The team created a half scale polystyrene maquette to plot the stardust pattern over the form. It is intended that this will then be digitised and the file sent to Shanghai to be placed over the actual structure. This working method is not ideal for Lee, who prefers more immediacy with the process, but grappling with what is available in the current climate reflects part of this artist’s consummate skill in improvising and realising a project to fruition.

Director of the MCA and curator of ‘Moon in a Dew Drop’, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, is looking forward to opening the doors to this show:

Lindy’s exhibition traces her journey of discovery through her art – how she was able to explore issues of identity and belonging, and come to a new understanding of our place in the world. Big issues that seem even more pertinent as we face the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. As we (hopefully) begin to emerge from the crisis and unwind the social distancing that is having such a profound effect on our daily lives, Lindy’s work is a timely reminder of our interconnectedness, not just with each other but with the wider universe.   

This preview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 51, 2020

EXHIBITION
Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop
2 October 2020 – 28 February 2021
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

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