The long and winding road south from Brisbane, with love

She left Brisbane in the 1970s and now Lindy Lee has rediscovered her hometown while creating an epic $14 million art installation – Australia’s largest ever commission – at an art foundry in the city’s north

Mar 14, 2024, updated Mar 27, 2024

Clear the highway and stand back everyone because Lindy Lee’s latest artwork will soon be hitting the road.

The Brisbane artist, now based in northern New South Wales, is close to completing her epic $14 million commission Ouroboros for the National Gallery of Australia.

This major installation artwork, which will sit at the front of the NGA in Canberra and celebrate the gallery’s upcoming 40th anniversary, is being built at Urban Art Projects (UAP) at Brisbane’s Northgate, where Lee is a regular visitor.

It is her second major work built there in the past few years. Lee was also commissioned to create the signature masterpiece for the $36 billion Queens 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.

That work is complete and is sitting at UAP awaiting installation after delays to the project completion.

Meanwhile, after several years in creation Lee’s 4-metre-high Ouroboros is nearing completion. To celebrate, The Calile Hotel in Fortitude Valley is hosting an event with Lindy Lee on March 26 when she will be in conversation with NGA director Nick Mitzevich, UAP founder and managing director Matt Tobin and NGA head of Australian art Deborah Hart.

The artist, the custodians and the makers will discuss Ouroboros’ journey from conception to creation, before it commences its physical journey from Brisbane to Canberra for its unveiling in October.

The Calile Hotel, in an extension of its cultural programming calendar, will also announce its official partnership with the NGA to provide greater access to internationally regarded artists and artworks and connect the local community with art and inspiration beyond the traditional confines of the gallery space.

The Lindy Lee event launching the partnership is sold out – such is the interest and excitement about Lee’s work – but there is a waitlist, so you may still get a seat.

The completion of Ouroboros is significant but it’s that physical journey from Brisbane to Canberra that has Lee most excited.

“Transporting it to Canberra is going to be really something,” Lee says. “It will be leaving Brisbane early June and it will take a month to get it there. It will be lifted onto the back of a flat-bed truck and it will have a police escort. It will travel through Goondiwindi and down through Dubbo. It will be amazing. I’m hoping for helicopters too.”

The work itself is based on the ancient image of a snake eating its tail – a symbol of eternal return, of cycles of birth, death and renewal. It will be located at the entrance of the NGA and visitors will be invited to enter the mouth of the sculpture and walk into the curved space to experience darkness that is illuminated by light beams emanating from the hundreds of perforations on its surface.

Having Lee and the folks from the NGA at The Calile to talk about the project seems fitting since the artwork is being made here in Brisbane.

The Calile co-owner Catherine Malouf says the hotel is “extremely proud and excited to share this unique opportunity with Brisbane and an engaged community curious to peek behind the curtain at the creative commitment, intense effort and dedication it takes to transform ideas into tangible and meaningful art”.

“Partnering with the National Gallery of Australia will allow us to develop, share and shape cultural experiences here at The Calile for our community, allowing us to offer engaging, stimulating and at times surprising interactions,” Malouf says.

The NGA’s Nick Mitzevich says the partnership is part of “our mission is to extend the reach of artistic perspectives beyond traditional gallery confines”.

“By showcasing artists from the national collection outside our walls, we make this cultural treasure accessible to all Australians. Our aspiration is to inspire, unit and create shared experiences within communities through the unifying power of art.”

As part of the cultural partnership, The Calile will host future events with the NGA. It’s wonderful that Lindy Lee, who left Brisbane in the 1970s to make her career, is the first guest artist.

“If you wanted to be an artist then you had to leave,” she recalls. “But Brisbane has changed and has really stepped up. The city has been transformed.”

Lee is a regular visitor now and spends as much time as she can with her 101-year-old mum Lily, who still lives at Taringa.

The artist says she is thrilled to be working with UAP, which was something of a revelation to her. It is now a global business but when she was first invited to visit the UAP foundry she had low expectations.

“Matt Tobin said to me – you should go and see our shed in Brisbane,” she says. “I was thinking of something the size of a double car garage and was completely embarrassed when I saw the size and scope of their operation. Since then, they invited me to come and play there and they said they would help me.”

Her playtime at UAP has resulted in the most expensive commission in Australian art in a quiet, nondescript street at Northgate. Now that it’s nearly finished Lee is excited.

“It’s really real now,” she says.  And you can bet she will be there to watch Ouroboros loaded onto that truck when it begins its journey south.

Calile Culture, Lindy Lee – A Local Prelude to a National Unveiling takes place at The Calile Hotel, Fortitude Valley, March 26, 6pm. Register for the waitlist:

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