The Material Histories of Lindy Lee

Written by Rose Li Cai Gamble

This Material Histories paper delves into the expansive practice of Asian-Australian artist Lindy Lee. I will analyse material histories within an art context, as well as in relation to Lindy Lee’s practice. I will discuss the significance of Lindy Lee’s works to material histories through specific examples, in the context of history, ritual, spirituality and philosophy. I will be discussing these specific ideas from a female Asian-Australian identity, as I was born in China, with an upbringing in Australia. I am also a Chinese adoptee and have little connection to my Asian identity and heritage, therefore, I have limited lived experiences of Chinese historical, cultural, religious, and philosophical practises.

Material histories within an art context can be defined as the material utilised by the artist and its implicit meaning, including the unique process and artists engagement with the material. Material histories also relates to the cultural, historical, and religious concepts associated with the use of the material, as well incorporating the artists personal practice in relation to the material.

Lindy Lee is an Asian-Australian contemporary artist, born in 1954 in Brisbane, Queensland. Lee’s expansive practice delves into themes of personal identity and diaspora. Her gestural works act as a vehicle to explore and process her two cultural backgrounds, Chinese and Australian. Lee incorporates Chinese religion, philosophy, and spirituality through meditative processes and choice of materiality. Lee utilises a range of materials; from molten bronze to traditional Chinese ink and often incorporates an elemental material such as fire.

Diaspora and cultural identity themes are woven into Lee’s practice, including Lee’s own heritage and story, as a Chinese-Australian. Over Lee’s career, her practice has evolved as she has come to understand her own identity. Lee’s early works centre around appropriating Western art masters through photocopying, later shifting towards investigating the materiality of familial archives. Growing up in Queensland during the White Australia Policy (1901 – 1958) with immigrant parents, Lee felt a divergence or a sense of “unbelonging” between her Chinese and Australian identities. She described this as ‘an assimilation that erased our identities. I felt like a White Australian although I didn’t look like one’ (Lee qtd. in Colless 2003), prompting the birth of the Xerox photocopy series. The materiality-based process employed, utilised an old Xerox machine: an example seen in Untitled (After Titian) (Lee 1990).

Curator and art writer Sophie Rose (2021) discusses this unique photocopying process. Initially the image would be repeatedly photocopied onto the same page, resulting in a significant quality loss of the image. This procedure deposited carbon layers onto paper, each copy progressively obscuring the original with dark carbon ink. The materiality and repetitive process, through which the original was eventually buried under the carbon, acted as a metaphor for Lee’s identity at the time. Lee describes herself in relation to the works process, ‘I realised that after some time with the photocopier, the photocopy was actually me. I’m a bad copy of China and European Australia. I fit somewhere in between’ (Lee qtd. in MCA 2020/2021). The photocopy series provoked self-questioning, by Lee, of her European-Australian identity and authenticity, Lee (2021) describes her early works as solely representing her connection to the Western world, whilst repressing her Chinese identity. Through this realisation, Lee’s work shifted towards expressing her Chinese self through the material histories of family photography.

Two examples of the conceptual shift to archival work exploring her family’s diaspora and heritage are seen in Birth and Death (Lee 2003) and Eating the Immortal Pellet (Lee 2015). Materially, Birth and Death (Lee 2003) has historical significance in the format which expresses traditional accordion books. The books display a portrait of each member of the family, from youngest to eldest. Lee (cited in VCA Art Forum 2021) describes the significance of each portrait in terms of composition, which visually represents her family’s intergenerational movement between China and Australia. The work is devoted to Lee’s nephew, Ben, who passed away at a young age. Continuing the survey into family archives, Lee created Eating the Immortal Pellet (Lee 2015), a key artwork in The Tyranny and Liberation of Distance (2015) exhibition. The work incorporates an elemental material, in the form of fire, with the photograph printed onto mild steel. The exhibition title The Tyranny and Liberation of Distance, describes the mixed emotions of immigrants moving to a new place.

The ritualistic nature of Lee’s processes is evident throughout her practise, especially her bronze foundry pieces and bronze sculpture installations. The element of chance and the transfer of agency, from artist to material, creates a unique intuitive process. The inclusion of the material bronze within Lee’s practice, has historical and cultural significance within Chinese history. Bronze has been exploited in many ancient civilisations around the world, including China. History of Natural Sciences Professor, Su Rongyu informs us of historical research describing early uses of bronze, ‘[h]istorical records from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) document the ritual functions of bronzes as symbols of royal power’ (2017:80). Historical evidence suggests bronze was utilised in the Shang Dynasty, as well as the earlier ruling period of the Xia Dynasty. Rongyu (2017) further discusses the bronze artefacts discovered, as well as the ancient casting processes employed, many of the artefacts were found to be formed using casting moulds or lost wax procedures, as opposed to forging techniques. Lee’s bronze foundry works are created utilising the same metallurgy technique of casting, within a bronze foundry, which can be seen in Moon in a Dew Drop (Lee 2009). This work is a key example of Lee’s ritual relationship between materials, process and meaning. Moon in a Dew Drop (Lee 2009) is created through placing molten bronze onto a rough foundry floor. As the metal cools on the uneven surface, unique organic shapes are formed. Joanna Bear describes this process, ‘in pouring ladles of liquid metal, Lee submits to the corporality of an experimental process that casts her not as creator but conduit’ (2021:77). Lee transfers her agency to the materials, letting the molten bronze create its own forms naturally. This ritual element also ties in with spirituality, as Lee becomes a vessel for energy to transfer into the materials and create the process. Bear (2021) informs us that the title of the work Moon in a Dew Drop, is in reference to Dögen, a monk practising Zen Buddhists techniques during the 13th century.

Another example of Lee’s ritual processes exploring the materiality of bronze is Flame of the Dragons Pearl: Open as the sky (Lee 2009). Similar in visual appearance to the previous work discussed, this work employs a different approach to casting. Lee (2020 cited in Art Collector Magazine) describes the work’s historical reference to Chinese scholar rocks. Ancient rocks forged over centuries from ecological pressures, these special rocks are utilised in Chinese gardens. The process of Flame of the Dragons Pearl: Open as the sky (Lee 2009) follows the same experimental ideas, but instead of flinging the molten bronze onto the foundry floor, Lee uses custard to cast the sculpture. This fascinating process was discovered through trial and error (Lee cited in Art Collector Magazine 2020) explains the original idea was too dangerous as the bronze could explode. This led to a change in materiality. Lee next experimented with molten lead in water but found the outcome unsatisfactory, finally she incorporated the custard. The lead samples acted as a mould for the larger scale work, from this polystyrene casting moulds were made for the final work. Lee refers to the work in relation to the practise of Chinese flung ink painting, and the symbol of the ‘splash’. Lee describes ‘all of this action, all of this vitality is actually caught in that one gesture’ (qtd. in Art Collector Magazine 2020), as well as the ability of the cooled material to capture this action. Through these two bronze examples, Lee’s ritualistic and intuitive approach to working, as well as the significant material history of bronze, solidifies the ongoing relationship between materiality, method and meaning.

Continuing with the symbolism of the “splash” as a defining feature of Lee’s practice, Lee incorporates her own spiritual, and philosophical beliefs into her work. As a Zen Buddhist, meditative procedures such as flung ink are incorporated into the work No Up, No Down, I am the Ten Thousand Things (Lee 1995/2020). The material history and significance of ink within Chinese culture is explored, as well as Lee’s contemporary approach to this ancient practice. The consideration of colour as a material, is another key element of the work. No Up, No Down, I am the Ten Thousand Things (Lee 1995/2020) was originally created in 1995. Lee has recently remade this installation for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, in 2020. The installation inhabits the entire dedicated exhibition space, covering the ceiling, floor, and walls with multicoloured sheets of paper. Each sheet either depicts a black ink splash or a photocopy portrait. Lee (2020/2021) explains that the installation was the first time she used Zen Buddhist practise in one of her exhibited works. The title lends to the idea of the entire universe coinciding to create life and the energy that is returned.

Yukio Lippit for the Art Bulletin (2012) describes the historical significance of flung ink paintings in both China and Japan. Flung ink is an ancient art practise dating back to China in the eighth century. In China, the practise is identified as pomo and in Japan as hatsuboku. The practise is explained by Lippit, ‘the splashed ink process consisted of an initial ink blot, trace, or stain created not with a brush but a flamboyant corporeal gesture’ (2012:56). The practise was traditionally used in landscape paintings, with details often added in after the ink splash. The fling of ink on paper contains the definite energy of the exact moment in time in which the pattern was created. Lee performs this ancient practise utilising the same original ideas and materials and incorporates these into her contemporary installations. Lee’s flung ink is another key example of the relinquishing of agency to the material, the artist can only control so much, allowing the material to create its own forms. The distinctive colours: orange, black, red, purple, and blue within No Up, No Down, I am the Ten Thousand Things (Lee 1995/2020) portray certain emotions or ideas. Lee (1996 cited in Eyeline Journal) describes each colour’s definition within the installation. Red for example, depicts passion, corporality, and vitality.

Lee’s material-based practice uniquely explores material histories through identity and heritage, using family archives and photography. Ritual plays an important role in each of Lee’s processes, especially seen in the flung bronze and ink works, as well as Lee’s personal journey as a practising Zen Buddhist. As a Chinese-born Australian, I can relate with Lee’s exploration of identity and heritage. Lee’s practice uses traditional Chinese materials, techniques, and philosophy to create a significant body of contemporary art, whose spirit is derived from accessing her Asian traditions.

Figure 1: Lindy Lee (2003) Birth and Death [installation, print on accordion books], Art Gallery of NSW website, accessed 22 September 2022.

Figure 2: Lindy Lee (2009) Flame of the Dragons Pearl: Open as the sky [bronze installation], Sutton Gallery website, accessed 23 September 2022.

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Lindy Lee (2015) Eating the immortal pellet [black mild steel, fire], Sutton Gallery website, accessed 22 September 2022.

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Rose S (2021) ‘Xerox Memory: Lindy Lee’s Photocopies’, Australian and New Zealand journal of art, 21(2):225-242, doi:10.1080/14434318.2021.1992723.