Lindy Lee is one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists, with a practice that spans almost thirty years. Throughout this time, Lee has exhibited widely throughout Australia and internationally, including presentations in Canada, China, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. A survey of Lee’s oeuvre, currently showing at the University of Queensland Art Museum, includes early photocopy work, pyrography and flung bronze. Fire Over Heaven, an exhibition of new work, runs concurrently at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney until Saturday 8 November. Sharne Wolff spoke with Lee for RAVEN about freedom, shifting selves and the links to family and identity that run throughout her work.
Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom at the University of Queensland Art Museum surveys almost thirty years of your practice. What’s in a title?
The title comes from Art-as-Art, Ad Reinhardt’s journal – he is one of my most favourite artists. The ‘dark’ concerns the freedom of not being entangled in ideas and expectations of what one ‘should’ be, but the freedom of simply being what ‘is’, and that for the most part can’t be pre-determined. For me questions of identity and belonging have plagued me since I was very young – am I Chinese, Australian, an artist, teacher… this or that? The answer is really that there is no such thing as a singular identity. All of us have multiple selves. What we are is an endlessly shifting set of configurations, relationships with the world. Our encounters with the world make us what we are. Freedom lies in the embracing of everything in existence that causes us to come into being.
This exhibition begins with the story of your Chinese grandfather and is dedicated to your mother [Lily Lee]. Can you tell us a bit more about the connection between family and your art?
I think that the impulse to create art often comes from a tearing, a wound in an individual’s psyche. The tearing comes from recognition that you are different and sometimes that is painful. Individual difference is both celebration and alienation. The quintessential human journey is the reconciliation between the split parts of us so that we can come into wholeness. Each of us is a product of history and yet, simultaneously we are unique. Holding those paradoxical realities of uniqueness and sameness is the practice of being human.
I grew up during the notorious White Australia policy. My father had arrived in Australia just after World War 2, (1945) and just before China was about to erupt into Communist revolution in 1949. My father was allowed to come to Australia but because of Australian policy my mother and two oldest brothers had to remain in China. The Chinese Revolution then complicated things even more. My mother, father and my brothers were finally reunited after about eight years, then I was born and also my sister.
My ‘family’ work negotiates cultural and generational difference. This trans-cultural, trans-generational negotiation is at the heart of this work. It is also what I believe to be at the heart of Australian social and cultural experience.
The postmodern works from the 1980s were made after you travelled overseas and later photocopied your favourite European works from the Old Masters and reproduced them multiple times. Why was it was important for you to do make this work at that time?
I had lived in Italy for a year (1978) and saw truly great European masterpieces – all of which moved and inspired me. When I came back to Australia in the early 80s, Australia was beginning to question its own cultural authenticity – the 1988 Bicentenary was about to be celebrated. Australia was beginning to question the origins of this culture …Indigenous, British/European – ultimately migrant. The photocopy work was a reflection of the second-degree culture we were living in – the idea that other than the Indigenous, Australian art had its origins elsewhere. At a more personal level, I felt like a very flawed copy of both Europe and China. The photocopies were the perfect material metaphor for what I was experiencing.
Seeing your work in this survey, it seems there are certain ‘stages’ of colour revealed giving each time period a distinct feel. Would you agree? Is there any significance in colour?
For me colours have material nature and are definitely autobiographical. Black is the constant. I started my artistic career using only black. At that time it was the colour of loss and mourning. Now it’s the colour of cosmos and mystery. The progression of colours has been black, red, intense ultramarine blue, purple, orange, and green. Each of these colours is lined with whatever personal questions I was faced with at the time. For example red is the colour of blood, flesh and family, blue is pure spirit and the particular shade of green I use is symbolic of birth and death.
You’ve said that growing up as a child in Brisbane was difficult for you. Do you feel comfortable in that same skin now?
As well as a practising artist, you’re also a lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts. What’s the most important advice you give to your students?
The best advice I can give is simply to turn up to your own life, attend to what is real to you and then you will find your voice.
Does this show feel like a bookend for you? What’s next?
It’s not a bookend but it is certainly a marker – an incredible opportunity to reflect on thirty years of sustained practice. What’s next? My responses to questions of being are increasingly more elemental – fire and water. I am also doing a lot of public art work at the moment. It seems that what has been a private and intimate studio practice is now literally growing bigger. Next year The New Century Garden will be built in Sydney’s Chinatown – it’s a project I’ve been working on for two years. I recently finished the Avoca Chinese Community Garden on the Victorian Goldfields, which commemorates the Chinese who worked there in the 1850s.
Lindy Lee: The Dark of Absolute Freedom, Mon to Sun 10am-4pm until 22 February 2015, The University of Queensland Art Museum, James and Mary Emelia Mayne Centre (Building 11), University Drive, The University of Queensland, St Lucia; (07) 3365 3046, artmuseum.uq.edu.au
Lindy Lee: Fire Over Heaven, Tue to Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-6pm until 8 November 2014, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 8 Soudan Lane, Paddington; (02) 9331 1919, roslynoxley9.com.au