On ViewMuseum Of Contemporary Art Australia
October 2, 2020 – February 28, 2021
Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dewdrop at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, Australia, is an absorbing, carefully arranged, and highly informative survey charting Lee’s development from fin-de-siècle postmodernist to an exponent of contemporary trans-culturalism.
Lindy Lee is a totemic figure in Australia’s contemporary artworld. As the daughter of migrants from China, her work speaks to continuing struggles for social justice and belonging in relation to the exclusory “White Australia” policy imposed as a legacy of British imperialism within the country from the turn of the 20th century until the 1960s. Lee has commented that she feels herself to be both Australian and Chinese and, consequently, neither wholly one nor the other. Shuttling between differing and uncertainly defined identities is a leitmotif running constantly throughout the artist’s work.
Lee first came to prominence during the late 1980s and early 1990s for a series of works involving deconstructions of canonical European painting. Among examples included in this survey is Untitled (After Jan van Eyck) (1988), a work comprising multiple photocopies of a portrait by the eponymous 15th-century Flemish painter arranged in a modular format, their images partially obliterated by gestural overpainting. These early works see Lee striving to undo the burden of the European tradition from a position at its colonial periphery. Their undeniably Warholian formats nevertheless remain squarely within the ambit of Euro-American postmodernism.
During the 1990s, Lee underwent an epiphany which redirected her attention away from Europe toward China. A seminal outcome of that realization is The Dark of Absolute Freedom (1999), a work involving seemingly random scatterings of black ink onto concertinaed paper loosely redolent of traditional Chinese freeform painting and calligraphy. The Dark of Absolute Freedom was preceded by intensely pigmented modular works, including Zip, Zero, Zilch (1995), similarly punctuated by ink and brush-like painterly accents.
These forays into non-figuration were followed by a return to the use of found images. In works such as The long road of the river of stars and No dust to seal the distance (both 2015), Lee appropriates family photographs and reproductions of traditional Chinese painting printed onto grey-scale paper and steel supports that have subsequently been distressed by fire. Although the effect is less emphatically deconstructive, there are abiding dislocations through which meanings feedback continually between differing cultural registers. This time, Lee’s work can be seen to coincide with the identarian hybridizations characteristic of Third Space post-colonialism.
In recent years, Lee’s practice has turned to an assertively non-figurative materiality. This later developmental phase is less constrained by intellectual fashion. Lee is no longer preoccupied with reactive deconstructions of authority but instead a playful traversing of diverse cultural elements.
In its title, catalogue, and gallery captions, this survey of Lee’s work at MCA, Australia suggests connections between the artist’s later work and the intellectual/aesthetic traditions of East Asia. It is necessary to approach such suggestions with a degree of caution given the widespread prevalence of hyperbole within a contemporary art world underwritten by mutually sustaining conjunctions of cultural and financial capital. In the case of Lee’s more recent work, though, it is possible to discern justifiable formal resonances with a constellation of ideas historically peculiar to Chinese culture. A series of non-figurative scroll-like hangings by Lee, collected under the title Conflagrations from the end of time (flowers fall) (2011), for example, incorporates chance-directed perforations and burnings as well as washes of ink redolent of traditional Chinese artistic practices and aesthetics—including the use of absence to highlight fullness of meaning, spontaneity of action in accordance with nature, and innate connections between artists, artworks, viewers, and nature.
The hanging of Lee’s work by curator and director of MCA, Australia, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, is beautifully realized within the broadly efficacious conventions of the white cube gallery space. That approach integrates well with the defined geometry of Lee’s modular works. It militates significantly, however, against the aesthetic promise of the artist’s more recent, less formally constrained, output. As the Hong Kong-based gallerist Johnson Chang has argued, the white cube enacts rationalizing divisions between spectators and artworks as well as everyday life and nature, in the midst of which contemporary artworks engaged with traditional Chinese artistic practices and aesthetics tend to be drained of their particular affects.1 That draining of affect is in evidence with regard to some of Lee’s recent work in this survey.
Of related significance is the installation, Moonlight Deities (2019-20), produced by Lee specifically for one of the exhibition’s larger gallery spaces. Although spectacularly ambitious, the installation’s stage-set layering of perforated metal sheets in perpendicular conformity to the gallery’s white cube walls lacks the meandering open-edged indeterminacy and intimacy of the traditional Chinese gardens which it, consciously or unconsciously, evokes. Here, a combination of production and display becomes aesthetically occlusive. These are all reminders that the critical and aesthetic success of trans-culturalism in the arts is by no means automatically guaranteed.
This text includes suggestions for practical interventions into the white cube conducive to the showing of contemporary art related to traditional Chinese artistic practices and aesthetics. (Johnson) Chang Tsong-zung, “Yellow Box: Thoughts on Art before the Age of Exhibitions,” in The Yellow Box: Contemporary Calligraphy and Painting in Taiwan, ed. By Chang Fangwei (Taipei: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2005), p. 8–26.