Canberra or bust – Lindy Lee’s massive sculpture is about to hit the highway

Lindy Lee’s massive sculpture Ouroboros is about to hit the highway heading for the National Gallery of Australia and she is going with it.

Jun 11, 2024, updated Jun 11, 2024
Lindy Lee at UAP with Ouroboros. Image by Josef Ruckli.

Lindy Lee at UAP with Ouroboros. Image by Josef Ruckli.

When Australia’s most ambitious art commission leaves Brisbane there will be tears and cheers. Artist Lindy Lee’s massive 13-tonne stainless steel sculpture Ouroboros has been built in Brisbane at the world-renowned Urban Art Projects foundry at Northgate.

On Friday (June 14) Lee’s work will be mounted on a truck to begin a five-day journey to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra.

This $14 million commission caused controversy when it was announced but having had a sneak peek at the piece before its departure, I can say it is worth every penny.

It will be an international drawcard in Canberra and the NGA’s signature sculpture. Inside the gallery Blue Poles rules but outside, it will be Lindy Lee’s Ouroboros. Amanda Harris, general manager of UAP’s manufacturing team, says technical work started on the project in late 2021 and around 200 people had worked on it.

“At the moment we are feeling a bit sad that we will be saying goodbye to it,” Harris says, “It’s the biggest single project and the most challenging we have done. The engineering is very complex.”

Harris and a small UAP team will be heading to Canberra to oversee the installation on site.

But first they have to get it there and that is a massive undertaking. The packed artwork will be 9m long, 7m wide and 4.6m high. The truck carrying Ouroboros will have police escorts all the way and Lindy Lee is excited about the journey.

When I ask her, jokingly,  if she will be going in the truck transporting her work she smiles.

“Yes, I will be in that truck,” she says. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m going to go with my baby as it floats down the highway. It’s a tri-state police escort and I will be wearing high vis and boots.”

Lee also has a massive public art work being installed at Queen’s Wharf Brisbane in the near future. She is proud that work and Ouroboros have both been made at UAP in Brisbane, her home town.

The 70-year-old artist lives in northern New South Wales nowadays and has spent much of her adult life away from Brisbane but has been spending more and more time in the Queensland capital recently – a lot of it at Northgate – and she has fallen back in love with the city.

Working with UAP to bring her most ambitious work to fruition has been “a gift”.

“So much of my life as an artist has been solitary so to work with this team in Brisbane has been a joy,” Lee says. The team at UAP had invited her to “come and play” a decade ago and then, a few years back Nick Mitzevich, director of the NGA and a former director of the UQ Art Museum threw her the nicest curve ball.

“Nick just simply said …I want to you create something for us and be as ambitious as you possibly can in this moment,” Lee recalls. “How many times does an artist hear that?”

This major installation artwork will sit at the front of the NGA in Canberra and celebrate the gallery’s upcoming 40th anniversary.

Lee was also commissioned to create the signature masterpiece for the $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf Brisbane development. Her stunning oblong sculpture Being Swallowed by the Milky Way features thousands of tiny holes puncturing its bronze surface and will be lit up at night to appear as a shimmering light-filled galaxy of silver and gold stars.

Ouroboros has holes too … 45,000 plasma cut (free hand) perforations designed by Lindy Lee on a maquette at her studio.

It has a 4.2 metre whale size opening that will allow people to step inside it once it is installed in Canberra. It is built of 231 individual cast stainless steel panels and took around 60,000 hours of work by the team at UAP.

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It will travel 1250kms to Canberra stopping overnight at Goondiwindi, Dubbo, and then on the NSW/ACT border before entering the national capital where it will be craned into place and will sit on piles in a small articfial lake in the gallery’s Sculpture Garden.

An exhibition of her work inside the NGA, titled Lindy Lee, will open to the public October 24 the same day Ouroboros will officially open.

The exhibition inside will explore similar themes to Ouroboros including ancestry, spirituality, the environment and the cosmos.

The Ouroboros mimics the ancient image of a snake eating its own tail, referencing birth and death, renewal, regeneration and transcendence. Visitors will be able to enter the “mouth” of the Ouroboros and experience the darkness that is illuminated by thousands of perforations on its surface.

“Similarly to Ouroboros, the exhibition at the National Gallery will be a meditative experience for audiences,” Lindy Lee says.

“Penetration of the light into the dark speaks to the cyclical nature of Cosmos and the regenerative capacity of life on Earth.”

Lee’s work has evolved from her long-held questions around identity and belonging stemming from a sense of an “existential split” between her Chinese ancestry and Australian birthplace.

NGA director Dr Nick Mitzevich says “Lindy Lee’s boldness and creativity has shined throughout her 40-year artistic career”.

“The arrival of Ouroboros alongside her first solo exhibition at the National Gallery and giving of the 2024 Annual Lecture is truly a momentous occasion for one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists,” he says.

But first they have to get it there and with Lindy Lee riding shotgun on the truck one feels sure that will happen.

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