Lindy Lee’s Drum Tower in New York

The Life of Stars, Tenderness of Rain (2016), a collaboration with UAP in Shanghai, Ting Hsin International Group. Photo: Charlie Xia, courtesy UAP

Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at artist Lindy Lee’s new sculpture for Chinatown in New York

In July this year, Australian/Chinese artist Lindy Lee, was in Chinatown New York to consult with locals and stakeholders about an international competition she had won to build a public artwork that would mark the symbolic heart of the city’s Chinatown. The competition had attracted 80 submissions from around the globe but Lee, with her collaborators, Brisbane head-quartered art fabricators, Urban Art Projects (UAP), with whom she had worked several times previously, had won. Lindy Lee’s Drum Tower was heading for New York.

Their submission had received the highest score ‘for design quality’ as well as ranking highest with ‘regard to qualifications and experience’. The competition, run by The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), called for a ‘symbolic and functional landmark at the nexus of Chinatown and the southern entrance to Little Italy’s historic Mulberry and Mott Streets’, a maze of roads and alleys crammed into a square mile of real estate, where 90,000 New Yorkers, mostly of Chinese heritage, lived. With its strict adherence to community involvement, the project had been in gestation, on and off, for decades. The eventual result was Lindy Lee Drum Tower.

Project Sketch for the Lindy Lee’s Drum Tower

When Lee and I met in Sydney recently she showed me her initial project sketch. It was an exciting and energetic minimalist scribble on paper, dashed off it seemed, in the searing heat of a creative moment but clearly showed a 20-metre-or-so high cylindrical steel tower inspired by the drum towers that were once ubiquitous in rural villages throughout China where they would be used to mark the transition from day to night and to call the community to civic ceremonies and important celebrations such as Chinese New Year.

Drum towers would also mark the symbolic centre of a village. Lee’s early design was composed of several open-ended vertically stacked drum shapes. ‘The sketch won us the project’, Lee said. Eight months after the competition had formally closed the contract was awarded to Lee and UAP in November last year, with a one million dollar budget. ‘That might seem a lot but it is not’, Lee added bullishly. ‘When it comes to money with a project like this the issues are unknown, such as foundations for a tall structure and in a big city such as New York you never quite know what is underground,’ she explained.

Lindy Lee’s drum tower will stand on a triangular traffic island at the intersection of Canal, Barker and Walker Streets, in Manhattan, known colloquially as the Canal Street Triangle, ‘the emblematic heart of Chinatown,’ Lee stated.

‘What NYSDOT wanted was something iconic, not a gateway as such, even though it is known as the Gateways in Chinatown project, but something equally symbolic that would mark the transition from the tumultuous streets of the city, to the vibrant atmosphere of Chinatown,’ Lee elaborated, adding, ‘New York’s Chinatown is unique in that it is still inhabited by the Chinese community. It is not simply an eat street with a Lion Gate at each end, as Chinatown is in many other international cities,’ she continued.

Chinatown Gateway and Lindy Lee’s Drum Tower

Lee’s iconic gateway for Chinatown combines two potent and important Chinese symbols, the Drum Tower and the Dragon. She has titled the various elements of her design – the seating, shelter and a series of concentric brass overlapping circles that will spill out across various locations, The Dragon’s Roar. The dragon being emblematic of the Chinese culture, with traditional belief stating that the dragon is an ancestor.

Lee has collaborated with UAP on several previous public art projects and when they heard about the Gateways to Chinatown project, through their office in New York, they tapped her on the shoulder and suggested that she should enter. However, winning the competition eight months after the entry process closed, took Lee completely by surprise. ‘I had given up any idea of winning because the decision was meant to be announced within a fortnight of submissions closing,’ she commented. Although known as an international artist throughout Asia with work in major Australian museum and collections, she readily acknowledges that she has no reputation to speak of in New York. ‘I did not think that I would have a chance because of that,’ Lee explained.

Since its start-up in 1993, UAP has grown to have a presence in New York, as well as Shanghai and the Middle-East and can boast work in its portfolio made for Ai Weiwei, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and the late humorous sculptor, Lawrence Argent. Ai Weiwei’s Arch (2017) for Good Fences Make Good Neighbours that rose 12 metres beneath New York’s iconic Washington Square Arch, was also one of UAP’s projects. Their mission – which sounds as much philanthropic as anything else – has been to provide artists with the space to develop ideas. Their expertise in fabricating art work as well as architectural projects, from steel and bronze, along with bold conceptual experimentation, looks set to catapult Lee onto the Northern hemisphere international, public art stage.

‘Although the design alludes to drums, the Lindy Lee drum tower will be through interconnected cylindrical shapes that rest on the tower, rather than actual drums,’ Lee elaborated. Although as a result of the recent stakeholder consultative forum in New York plus input from local architects, Levenbetts, the concept has evolved so that now the drum shapes are off-set and wrapped in a skin of mirror polished steel, with thousands of perforations, defining the Lindy Lee drum tower while the overlapping concentric bronze circle will creep across the footpath in several adjacent locations.

Lindy Lee’s Background

Lee’s background in many ways is not that different from those of the thousands of second-generation Chinese migrants with conflicted identities who now live in New York’s Chinatown. Her father arrived in Australia from China in 1949 and her mother and siblings, followed in 1953. Lee was born in Brisbane in 1954 and grew up in the city that presented her with problems of cultural identity.

She spent years trying to deny her ‘Chineseness’, but after years of denial eventually embraced her cultural heritage and identity, a move that would lead her to explore both, through her art; she would use appropriated vintage photographs from the family album, photocopied multiple times and juxtaposed alongside symbolic dense black and red panels. Until 2008, her work had been predominantly two-dimensional, multi-panelled and strikingly visual.

In 2008, came a breakthrough into total abstraction with a series of pierced paper works. The genesis of these works emerged after a residency in Kuala Lumpur, where monsoonal rain was so heavy it pierced the paper with which she was working. ‘This stayed with me as an experience and somehow became the trigger for environmental aspects of existence,’ she explained.

Lindy Lee borrowed a friend’s studio in Beijing, bought a lot of soldering irons and blow torches and set to work for three months, burning holes in various surfaces. Lee knew immediately that the new ‘fire drawings’, as she called the piercings, was heading her in the correct direction, but she did not realise the ‘magnitude of the potential for these perforated fire drawings,’ she recalled.

Shanghai Work

In 2014, Lee received a commission for a public art work from Ting Hsin International Group in Shanghai. ‘I visited UAP in Brisbane for the first time while I was preparing the Ting Hsin work. I thought their factory was going to be the size of a double garage. It turned out to be the size of an aircraft hangar!’ Lee exclaimed. She experimented with free-form flung-bronze that, for her, was redolent of the ancient Chinese practice of ‘flung-ink paintings’, a physical manifestation of the Buddhist spiritual practice, of oneness with nature. ‘I took up a flask of molten bronze and tossed it (in) a moment of creativity … (and I became) part of a process,’ she said.

Then out of the blue UAP said ‘they would like to make a sculpture with me’. The result was the six-metre high, mirror polished stainless steel, elliptical egg-shape sculpture – The Life of Stars – for Ting Hsin. ‘It was not until I made this work that I realised just how powerful it would be,’ she explained. With multiple piercings arranged in overlapping concentric circles, the work represented for Lee, earth, life, birth and renewal and resonated with the Tao and Buddhist principles that guided her spiritual trajectory.

Several more iterations of The Life of Stars now stand in public spaces in Shanghai, Zhengzhou, and most recently, Xian, as well as at the entrance to the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. They can have as many as 80,000 hand positioned piercings which at night, when illuminated from inside, glow with the radiance of stars. It may all sound a little new-age and kitsch, but the spiritual transcendence encountered in these works, is anything but.

Lindy Lee’s Drum Tower – Some Local Resistance

Now that the New York contract for the Lindy Lee drum tower is agreed Lee is enjoying hearing the views of locals on her project and what she is hearing as a result of attending these community forums is good. ‘They have embraced the idea of the 20-metre high tower on the Canal Street Triangle, which is currently occupied by a city information booth, a couple of trees and little else,’ Lee explained. ‘Only one person at the recent forum said that my design was not “Chinese enough” and there was some local resistance when several people said I was not New-York Chinese. However, I was able to persuade them that we shared similar historical and cultural backgrounds,’ Lee said, adding, ‘We are all migrants sharing similar backgrounds of displacement, transition and identity’. Which is something New Yorker’s can readily identify and empathise with.

By Michael Young

For more information Lindy’s Lee Drum Tower on the artist visit Lindy Lee’s website