Art Sets.

The art that made me: Lindy Lee

In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by Lindy Lee first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.

‘There is hugeness in all of these works,’ Lindy Lee admits, reflecting on her selection of favourites from the Gallery’s collection. ‘The ancient Chinese Guanyin embodies a very wide and generous spirit – the heart of compassion. Gulumbu Yunupingu invokes how the fabric of our being is ploughed through with cosmos. Miyajima Tatsuo’s primary subject is time and Sugimoto Hiroshi’s work touches eternity.’

A student of Zen Buddhism for more than 20 years, Lee’s work shares many of these same concerns, while also evoking her own struggle with identity and her family’s history.

‘I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of “self” in the world,’ she has said. ‘For me it has to do with being a divided self – Chinese and Australian – and the feeling of being neither this, nor that, but both.

‘At one end of the scale my work deals with identity, but the examination of “self” goes beyond identity,’ she says. ‘The dimension of what makes us what we are is huge.’

Lindy Lee. Photo: Lee Nutter

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Lindy Lee. Photo: Lee Nutter

In Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin is a very important Bodhisattva, or archetype. She has been a very important figure in my life, and I think this sculpture is particularly beautiful. She is sitting in the posture of ‘royal ease’ meaning that she is at ease with herself and the world.

She is often the centerpiece in Chinese family altars. There are many porcelain Guanyins, but there’s something about the raw earthiness of this one because she is made from timber. I loved this particular sculpture probably even before I was interested in Buddhism. She emanates genuine warmth and is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.

In Buddhism, compassion isn’t just about kindness. Being kind is a part of it – we can be kind to animals or children – but compassion is a profound state of receiving. It is the capacity to hold everything that you are: the good and the bad, the things that you’re ashamed of, the things that you are joyful of, and to hold them all unflinchingly.

This Guanyin is at ease with herself, at ease within the world, holding everything – even the most difficult. To me, this is a fundamental principle. If you learn to hold everything that you are with compassion, then the seemingly warring factions within ‘self’ will find peace, and then that peace ripples out into the world.

I came to Miyajima when I was just beginning to be interested in Buddhism. His credo is ‘Keep changing, connect with everything, continue forever’. It’s very, very Buddhist.

Miyajima’s main concern is time which is also a very important ingredient in my work, and in Buddhist spirituality. Every activity you engage in, every moment of your being is the passing of time. Time is another word for impermanence and of course the embrace of impermanence is at the heart of Buddhism.

In his LED works, Miyajima counts from zero to nine and back again, and this is repeated over and over. You are confronted with a mass of digital numbers, which are perpetually counting. In Buddhism, the only time that really exists is the present moment. Past and future are abstractions away from reality. In Miyajima’s work, each moment is noted in the counting.

The sequence of numbers infers past and future, but is very much grounded in this mesmerising, endless counting of present moments. The multiple digital clocks have different timings or rhythms, all co-existing. Just like you and me – individual lives, which actually co-exist in the present.

Gulumbu Yunipingu’s work is about deep time – cosmos. In her work, the stars are twinkling down on us … they are us. I had a wonderful experience with her in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art called Marking time. Our work was exhibited in the same gallery. There was a palpable conversation going on between our works.

When she saw my work she burst into tears, because she thought that I had captured her father’s fire dreaming and when I saw her work I burst into tears because to me this was the story of ‘The Net of Indra’.

The Net of Indra is a Buddhist story in which the image of the universe is likened to an invisible net. At the ties of each of the strings in the net there is a perfect and singular jewel. However, the reflected light of every other jewel in the universe causes its beauty and uniqueness. It is a parable that states that the primary cause of existence is profound interconnection. I told Gulumbu Yunipingu that this was how I understood her work and why I was so moved by it.

She gave a floor talk where I was in the audience just trying to be invisible up the back, but she invited me forward to be with her. She told the audience that her work was the sacred outer story of her father’s dreaming, and mine was the sacred inner story. Her people, she said, are born of fire, so all of the notations in my work, which were literally made from fire, were the sparks of life in her people. It was a treasured, wondrous encounter. I’ve always felt that Indigenous Australian spirituality and ancient Chinese spirituality had resonance. After that experience I felt that even more strongly.

Sugimoto’s photographs are mesmerising. They fulminate with life and vitality. His work is not just documentation of the ocean and horizon line. They actually embody time. Although it is ‘only’ a photograph it is not static – the photograph changes in front of your eyes the longer you stay with it and you feel and experience yourself changing inresponse to the image. There is immense interiority in his photographs, which seeps outwards towards something infinite. Each moment of viewing is a portal to something very grand. I never tire of looking at a Sugimoto seascape – there is the sense of something enigmatic being endlessly disclosed.

This is what fascinates me in all the works I’ve chosen. They encapsulate what I care most about – that the descriptive is transcended to make way for pure presence, pure mystery.