Lindy Lee’s powerful MCA retrospective demonstrates both her artistic strength and her vulnerability. By Tai Mitsuji.
Moon in a Dew Drop
No exhibition is more personal than a retrospective. The format is saddled with an impossible task: it must capture a lifetime of artistic work, squeezing months, years and decades into a few stark white rooms, attempting to do justice to the weight of an artist’s existence.
Lindy Lee’s retrospective Moon in a Dew Drop, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, doesn’t buckle under the strain, while avoiding exhaustive biographical details that obscure the art. The first work that greets me at the entrance, Buddhas and Matriarchs (2020), is lent almost no contextualisation by the nearby plaque. It needs none.
The circular installation hangs on the wall like a suspended celestial body, generating its own gravitational pull. Composed of a series of “flung” bronze pieces, the work holds me in flux as my eye oscillates between the seductive details of its constitutive parts and its greater unified form. There is no discernible narrative, yet some kind of essential expression keeps me enthralled at the entrance of the exhibition. This is Lee at the height of her powers.
Walking through the exhibition, we encounter less self-assured versions of the artist. It conveys a sense of how Lee’s ever-evolving identity has been folded into her work. Over the course of more than 70 artworks, Lee jumps from an outward fascination with Western art to a more introspective exploration of her Chinese heritage, from monumental sculptures and punctured surfaces to an embrace of Zen Buddhist and Daoist philosophies.
Life is rarely linear, and neither is Lee’s artistic development. It feels disjointed at times, as her interests break off in different directions. The exhibition is all the better for reflecting this. An inherent vulnerability in the works suggests the realities of an artist feeling around in the dark, searching for a path forward. One moment you are walking past photocopies of old Renaissance paintings, and the next you hear a recording of Lee recalling the moment she realised that, despite her best efforts, she did not belong within the Western art canon.
In the exhibition catalogue Lee suggests that her pursuit of an orthodox artistic identity echoes her immigrant father’s membership in the right-wing Liberal Democrats: different attempts to achieve the same sense of acceptance. As the son of an immigrant, I can’t help but recognise Lee’s early compulsion to belong – these ribbons of yearning inevitably find ground in my own experience. It shows how, in opening up their lives to us, artists allow us to understand our own.
In Birth and Death (2003), Lee presents images of five generations of her family. Responding to the death of Lee’s 22-year-old nephew, the work captures the continuity of family even in the face of tragedy and death. The portraits don’t sit flatly on the wall, but stand in an upright zigzag configuration. In this form, they are active expressions of life, rather than idle documents of history. Here, the past and the present collapse into one another.
The Conflagrations from the End of Time series (2011) sees Lee turn towards abstraction, with four massive paper scrolls suspended on the wall. The nearby text explains that these works have been punctured and burnt with a soldering iron, and stained with water. These pieces have a visceral immediacy: they have weathered an elemental storm. The exquisitely delicate works feel simultaneously like a poetic surrender to nature and an exertion of artistic control.
Seeing an Australian artist – rather than a famous international name – afforded the summer blockbuster exhibition in one of our major art institutions is both unexpected and refreshing. The best part is that Lee’s exhibition rewards this choice. It really does. The redoubtable creative force of her artworks refutes any accusation of provincialism. In doing so, these pieces open up a more complicated vision of who an Australian artist is – and who they could be.
Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 28.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2020 as "Lunar reflections".
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