Lindy Lee was born in 1954 in Meanjin/Brisbane. Her grandparents and parents emigrated to Australia from China’s Guangdong province between 1946 and 1953. Lee initially studied to be a high school teacher, graduating from Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education in 1975. She later travelled to Europe where her encounters with art and museums inspired her to pursue a career as an artist. Lee studied fine arts at Chelsea College of Arts in London (1980) and later at Sydney College of the Arts (1984). She now lives and works in the Byron Bay hinterland in New South Wales.
In 1983 Lee created her first ‘photocopy’ work, copying works from the Western canon until they were dark and illegible. She then further distorted the images by manipulating their scale and overpainting them in acrylic. These works explore ideas about originality and authenticity. As Lee states, ‘repetition was about trying to be inside each moment of being … [it] has been a really important quality in my work since the very beginning.’
In the late 1980s she began interrogating her personal history and cultural heritage. She manipulated, scorched and distorted copies of family photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, explaining that these actions demonstrated the difficulties her family faced during their first years in Australia: ‘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.’
Other consistent influences on Lee’s practice include Taoism and Zen Buddhism. A practising Buddhist since the early 1990s, Lee says that ‘Zen practice directs me to something fundamental about being, which is that we are constantly in flux and change’. This sense of transition, malleability and impermanence is reflected in her contemporary work, in which delicate perforations are singed into metal and paper. Her spirituality also informs her recent work in sculpture in which free-formed bronze fragments are arranged into harmonious compositions. These works reinterpret the ancient Chinese art of ‘flung ink’ painting, a practice significant to Lee who explains: ‘Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monks would meditate … then fling the ink from a container. The mark that results encapsulates the totality of the universe – the sum of all conditions, which underlie the creation of “this” moment. By letting go of the ego “self”, the monk surrenders to “the self that arrays itself in the form of the entire world”.’
Lindy Lee by Anne O'Hehir
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
Lindy Lee’s work from the mid‑1980s was concerned with the idea of the copy. This reflected a broader preoccupation in art at the time with notions of ‘originality’ and ‘reproduction’ and past and present, especially as they applied to Australian culture. For Lee, this idea also allowed her to consider and make sense of her own cultural displacement—as a woman with Chinese heritage growing up in conservative Brisbane in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘I had always felt a fraud—a copy, and a flawed one at that … I was counterfeit white and counterfeit Chinese.’(1)
Lee’s recent work continues to examine her sense of cultural displacement by incorporating processes drawn from her Taoist and Buddhist practice. The basis for her extended series Conflagrations from the end of time 2011 are large, scroll‑like sheets of paper. She irreversibly damages the beautifully made sheets of paper—objects that might be considered perfect—by leaving them out in the elements and burning holes into them with a soldering iron. But rather than signs of damage or death, the spaces—slits and holes—created by the burning should be literally seen as ‘enlightening’. As Leonard Cohen— who shared Lee’s commitment to Zen Buddhism—noted, there is a crack in everything and ‘that’s how the light gets in’.(2) Our humanity lies in our cracks, in our frailties and weaknesses. Light illuminates literally and figuratively, allowing us to examine and honour our shadow side.
The title Conflagrations from the end of time also speaks to themes of life and death. It refers to the unimaginable: the end of time. The end of our existence? The end of all existence? Existence as we perceive it? All are difficult for us to sit with. We spend our lives running away as fast as we can from confronting it, and yet it is in this space that the student of Zen sits—it is only by losing a fear of death that a person is able to fully live. Whether we like it or not we have to bow to the laws of nature. The state of mind at a person’s death is supremely important in determining how a person incarnates into the next life.
Lee sits in this space—calmly, repeatedly working, burning away her impurities with fire.(3) Conflagrations from the end of time reminds us of one of the basic tenets of Buddhism: everything is impermanent. Everything in the universe is arising and then passing away. In this sense, it is always the end of time and the beginning. In Taoist terms there are no absolutes—in darkness, there is always the possibility of light, yang and yin in constant, dynamic exchange. Lee’s work—so simple in a sense—speaks to these ultimate truths.
(1) Quoted in Melissa Chiu, ‘Struggling in the ocean of yes and no’, Lindy Lee: Art & Australia monograph, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2001, p 16.
(2) Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’, from the album ‘The future’ (1992).
(3) Fire is an important element in Lee’s work. As she noted in 2009, ‘Fire is a perennial theme in Buddhist imagery—it is the fire of transformation and the fire of being’. Artist statement for the exhibition, Flames from the dragon’s pearl, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2009.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: O'Hehir, Anne. "Lindy Lee" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 228–229.
ANNE O'HEHIR is Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.