by Zoe Li
Published: October 17, 2013

HONG KONG – In a black formal cheongsam with her black hair cut in a blunt fringe, Lindy Lee wears her Chineseness like a badge of

honor. But the Australian-born-and-bred artist admits that she was once ashamed of her ethnicity.

“I would have killed to be a blond surfy chick, but that was never gonna happen. We all get torn in some way. Being a little girl growing up in Australia with a Chinese face, I’m not white Australian and I’m not exactly Chinese like they are at the Chinese Club, so what am I?” says Lee.

This identity search has driven the artist throughout her artistic career. Eventually becoming a student of Zen Buddhism, Lee has been exploring greater questions of existence through meditation, painting, and sculpture.

The artist opened a new show “Universal Record of the Flame” at Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane Gallery on October 16, showing the newest works in her porous metallic sheet series. In them, large, thin panels of plain stainless steel, sometimes printed with Buddhist images such as portraits of Guanyin (the bodhisattva associated with compassion), are cut into Swiss cheese-like patterns.

Also displayed are her new “flung bronze” sculptures inspired by the practice of flung ink paintings. The pattern created by the spontaneously thrown ink, or in this case the molten metal, embodies the interconnection of all that exists in the universe in that moment.

BLOUIN ARTINFO chats with Lindy Lee about femininity, the cosmos, and her design for Sydney Chinatown’s New Century Garden that she hopes will be completed in a year’s time.

What does the title of the show, “Universal Record of the Flame,” refer to?

The title is taken from a document written in the Song dynasty in China and it lists all of the enlightened women of that era. It’s a little known document and I’m just paying homage to the entitled women who walked the earth.

So is femininity particularly important in this show?

Yes, I feel that the fluidity of the bronze sculptures exudes very feminine energy. The stones are related to the idea of scholar rocks (complex rocks that ancient Chinese scholars collected and studied for their aesthetic value), absolutely intense energy of the earth is needed to make the scholar rocks. I’ve made these fire stones from splashed metal and intense heat is needed to make these. I feel that they are sisters to scholar rocks.

Also, there are two Guanyin images in this show, which refers back to the title. Guanyin is the feminine face of Buddhism and she is associated with compassion. The idea of compassion is about total inclusiveness. It’s not just about being kind to somebody. Compassion in the deepest sense is to hold everything that you are. There’s a great Chinese Buddhist saying: ‘Under the empty sky there are good people, bad people, moons and stars, bushes and trees, good teachings, bad teachings. All of that is inherent in you.’ You have to have the capacity to hold all that’s good and bad and have compassion for that. Guanyin is the archetype of that.

How does the porousness of your sheets of metal relate to this inclusiveness?

The pattern of shadow cast by the metal is an intrinsic part of the work. If we lived in a shadowless world, it would be without dimension. The work is embodying a very Daoist principle which is an interconnection between the material and immaterial. I could say many things about you but not one of those things, nor the totality of those things will ever sum you up. The reality of you will exceed anything that I can say and that’s because we are all made of ten thousand million kinds of experiences that make us all we are. I cannot point to the you that was five years old, but she’s here. All of our experiences throughout our years constructs who we are – and that’s the “shadow.” The metal is the body, it’s corporeal, the corporeal has no life

except that the spirit, or invisible, exists and the spirit or the invisible can have no agency in the world except that it happens through this body and that’s how I understand that the material and immaterial is hinged together. It’s this curious paradox. The emptiness and the form are engendered in each other. They create each other constantly.

Fire and metal are important elements in this show. Tell us about the importance of the five elements in your work.

It all started with this very question of ‘What am I? What is all this?’ I’ve been a Zen student for 20 years and a central question in Zen is: what is this that exists? Not what you think it is, but what is it actually? In meditation you experience that your body is very porous. The inside and the outside are deeply connected. I was in Malaysia at one point and I saw it was raining and there was paper out on the lawn. The rain in Malaysia is the heaviest in the world. The rain was so heavy it was piercing the paper. I thought: actually, part of what we are is elemental. We can never step outside of cosmos. We’re so deeply connected to everything else but we are also singular, and there’s a great beauty in that. It made me want to work more with elemental things. I’ve worked a lot with water and rain as well but this show is really about fire and metal and the Fire of Being. There is a really deep passion that we all have to exist, we fight to exist and that’s the fire inside of us.

These metal sculptures are made by flinging molten metal onto the ground. Are you doing this yourself?

With these bronze splashes I go to a foundry and they melt down a cauldron of bronze and it is extremely hot and first they wouldn’t let me throw the bronze because it was just too dangerous. I’ve started to do it now and it is fantastic, it is so fun you can’t wipe the grin off my face. It started with the flung ink practice, that aspect has been in my painting practice for 20 years, gradually it translated to hot wax and then to this bronze and of course the philosophy behind that is: in the flinging of ink or wax or bronze, everything that’s existed in that moment is recorded. So that’s what drives my work and then I have been wanting to make these three dimensional splashes for five years but I didn’t know how to do it. My first idea was to pour molten bronze into water, but that would cause death, because it would explode.

There must be an alloy you can work with.

I was awarded a commission to design a chunk of Chinatown in Sydney. They gave me a prototyping budget. So at last with the help of Urban Art Projects, who helped me to do a lot of work, we had enough money to play around with trying to make these sculptures, because these are going to be two or three meters tall and displayed in Chinatown so these sculptures in the gallery now are the prototypes. One of these prototypes cost AUS$50,000 just to research.

Meditation is important before creating flung ink paintings, so are you also meditating before creating these sculptures?

It sounds a bit crazy but after the formal meditation I also swim three kilometers. Meditation stills the mind and then the swimming allows things to arise. Just in that process of swimming lap after lap, there’s a clarity that comes. I always have to apologize to everybody I’m working with because I’m not available until I have swum and then I’m ready and these forms come out of the swim.

Tell us more about the Chinatown project. How is it going?

The New Century Garden in Chinatown is not really a garden, it’s an entire street. Chinatown is grunge with grace. It’s alive and you don’t want to kill off the activity. We wanted it to be pedestrian friendly but also have places to hang out and have repose. Chinese gardens have moon gates, but I didn’t want the traditional shape so we will make a splash sculpture and inscribe it into the ground at the threshold of the street. Technically it’s very difficult but we’re working on it. It will be six to eight meters wide. Most Chinatowns across the world are kind of generic, we wanted to move away from the generic. We have these suspensions over the busiest part of the street, the cityscape there is really quite harsh so we wanted to soften that with some sort of shade structure. We will make aluminum discs with my metal sheet patterns and they will float across the street.

(Lee shows me images of the maquettes for the suspended discs) They look sort of UFO-like.

We’re trying to avoid that. This disc shape is incredibly strong when you put two on top of each other. Hanging from high above, the porous pattern creates a shadow on the street. I wanted to incorporate the shadow element.

Why was it important to use feng shui in the Chinatown design? It is more Daoist than Zen.

It’s in the spirit of being inclusive. But also there is some contention of wether Zen Buddhism is Daoist or not. Indian Buddhism came to China, steeped in native Daoism for a couple of centuries and then chan (Zen) emerged – it is Buddhism deeply marinated in Daoist spirit. There is so much resonance between the two philosophies.


Where are you now in your search for identity?

In Australia I am so Chinese, when I go to China I am so foreign. So there is a liberation in just accepting that in different contexts I am a different thing. It’s not just one thing. That’s liberating because you are free to play between things. I’m not grasping for anything that totally defines me, I will never find that. I can only be with what it is.

You’ve mentioned before that the next phase in your career will deal more with the cosmos.

This is it. It’s the understanding that human beings are so clever and we are so conceited because we can invent airplanes and nuclear bombs and electricity and computers and we’re able to harness the laws of nature. Our conceit is that if we can harness the rules of nature we are above nature. But we’re not. We are just as much subject to it as ever. Nature is also cosmos, cosmos is inherent within us, you cannot step outside of cosmos. There is no way. What this work is trying to give the feeling of is that cosmos is absolutely right here within us, within you, within me.