How Lucy Liu Overcame Fear Through Art

At the opening of her two-person exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, the creative force recounts the ways she channeled her fears.
Reading time 12 minutes

One of the first things that struck me about Singapore when I took my first stroll on its streets is its cleanliness. I learn from a plaque in the city center that that is partly due to the city-state’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his policies of “greening.” I later learn over beers with an art curator based in the city that it’s also partly due to how that effort evolved into the oppressive fines handed out to those caught littering, doled out by an abundance of plain-clothes police.

For Lucy Liu, at the opening of her two-person exhibition, “Unhomed Belongings” in collaboration with Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao, at the National Museum of Singapore, the city’s lack of litter presented an obstacle. The crux of Liu’s contribution is a series of books called “Lost and Found,” presented at the museum in a room of its own, on shelves like a mini-library.

The books are full of found objects—trash really—that Liu has salvaged on her travels around the world shooting films and TV shows. She then cuts the object-sized holes in the pages of blank books and glues or sews the objects in to create a tome of objets trouvés. During a walkthrough of the exhibit, I pick one of the books up and find a crushed Coca-Cola can and a broken piece of electronics, nestled into their own little pockets that Liu has assiduously cut out in her New York studio.

“There are several books that haven’t been done yet because it’s an ongoing process,” she said in a panel discussion at the museum, attended by nearly every Asian press outlet. “In Singapore, I will create a book… Unfortunately, there’s nothing on the ground. Fortunately, and unfortunately, there’s nothing to find.”

Liu has been making art since she was a teenager, but after she became famous for her roles on Ally McBeal and in Charlie’s Angels, and then later stealing the show in Kill Bill, Volume 1, when she showed her artwork, it was always under her Chinese name Liu Yu-ling or simply Yu Ling. Only over the past dozen or so years has Liu intermingled her two worlds.

“I didn’t want to take away that mask,” she explains. “I had this class in college about Taoism, and Taoism had a section about the unnaming of names. It doesn’t really matter. You remove all previously conceived ideas. That’s what I was trying to achieve by using my Chinese name, so there was no ‘Oh, she was in Charlie’s Angels or Kill Bill.’ To remove that and come in with a clear palette, and looking at something using your eyes and your other senses stimulates a different part of how people see things.”

She also saw her use of her Chinese name as a way to protect herself. Protection, she says, is a theme that comes up over and over again in her work.

“It’s harder sometimes when you are already an actor to come out with another hat, even though I had been doing art way before I started acting,” she says. “It occurred to me how vulnerable one has to be, regardless of how much one tries to protect themselves. In my works, there’s a lot of themes about protection, whether it’s tying string around wood, which is the Congolese fetishes. Ultimately, you just have to bear down and be prepared.”

Now, Liu is used to intermingling the worlds. On the Golden Globes red carpet last week, she even gave the show a shout out before going on stage to introduce Best Motion Picture –Musical or Comedy nominee Crazy Rich Asians.

“I’m actually leaving tomorrow to go to Singapore for an art opening at the National Museum,” she told Ryan Seacrest. “So I’m presenting Crazy Rich Asians, which was shot in Singapore, and then I’m leaving tomorrow to actually live the life for a minute.”

The show also features other work of Liu’s, including her “Seventy Two” series, a group of abstract ink and acrylic on paper works that reference the Kaballah’s 72 Names of G-d, as well as a large painting, hung from the ceiling that has photographs taken at the Ground Zero site in Manhattan, and the back embedded with found objects held in place by string. But it’s the “Lost and Found” books that are the most interesting.

Amongst the people she interacts with on sets, Liu’s habit for picking up refuse is nearly as well known as she is. Even back in 2011, when The Guardian wrote an article about her Seventy Two series, she talks about being a “dumpster diver.” In fact, she’s so well known for it, when she shows up on set, they’re ready for her.

“I pretty much pick up almost everything that I find,” she says during the panel talk. “There’s not a way to find a home for everything. A lot of things I find I end up recycling or throwing in the trash, so at least it’s not just discarded on the street. It’s gotten to the point where people see me at work when I was working on a show, that they automatically hand me a Ziploc bag.”

During the walkthrough, Liu offers some insight as to the inner workings of how she came to pick up trash. “When you open the book, you’ll find these are things that I found on the street,” she says, pulling down one of the books from the shelves, and holding one open.

“This Tic Tac box obviously was the home of many delicious Tic Tacs, and this bottle top, and this wire that was once very useful. It hurts my feelings to see objects thrown aside, and it hurts my feelings to see pollution, which you don’t see here, obviously because it’s a crime, but living in New York and other places in the world, it’s something that people do a lot—they litter, they pollute.”

On the panel, she offers more insight. It’s more than just greening, she says. “I find it fairly abhorrent to pollute and to waste things,” Liu says. “We grew up with very little money, so we made the best of what we had.”

One of the books she picked up during the walkthrough says that the objects came from “Fort Lauderdale, June 2013,” and there are other books with objects from filming locations like New York and Provincetown, as well as Lebanon, where she went as a UNICEF ambassador. That trip to Lebanon led to her to realize that her modest upbringing gave her an appreciation for things most people would consider trash. 

“With UNICEF, when I went to Lebanon at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, these children said, ‘Come and play with us,’ and we went and sat in this empty room, and there were some rocks, a broken rock, and some mish-mosh pieces of junk, or what people would see as junk, but to them, they had become these unbelievable toys, and they treasured them,” she explains. “For me, as a child, I treasured things—we used to go to this broken down lot and play. Those objects became toys to me. I didn’t really make the connection that when I would see [the found objects] and pick them up that they were toys from my past. I felt sorry for things that were thrown on the ground. It broke my heart, so I made a point of picking these things up. They used to be in a box, and then I started to put them in books.”

The project is six years on the making, but it took some prodding by The Ryan Foundation’s founder Ryan Su, a non-profit with a “mission to promote arts awareness in Singapore and around the world” that helped organize the exhibition to get her to show “Lost and Found.” She wasn’t sure whether or not they were ready, but finally, she acquiesced.

“I remember somebody asked me why I act, and it was not because it was about fame or about money, it was really about sharing those works. It’s sort of like the idea of food. Food is made, and it’s much more fun when it’s shared.”

As for pairing Liu with Rao, that was all the work of Angelita Teo, the director of the National Museum, who co-curated the show with independent curator Daniel Chen—a friend of Liu’s—and the National Museum’s Iman Ismael. She says during the panel that something just clicked. Rao and Liu both work with books. Rao’s most recent series, “Pulp,” is a 10-year project consisting of five books, a series of short films, and photographs about book and library destruction.

“What it’s really about is I think a futile attempt to psychoanalyze why our species loves violence,” Rao explains on the panel. “For 10 years, I’ve traveled alone locating people, sites, books, and so on that at some point in human history have been flashpoints for genocide and cultural destruction.”

Like Liu’s work, Rao’s holds a personal element.

“When I was a teenager, I watched the library of Sarajevo burn on TV,” she says. “It was the first time I saw colour TV. So embedded in this project is a very personal aspect. Plus, the fact that this library I spoke about that I grew up with was destroyed when I was nine years old. It brought to the fore the hatred that people have towards knowledge.”

And like Liu, Rao, who grew up in the Himalayas of India, and now is a Singaporean citizen, once used a different name, hers being a fictional professor that she used to present her works.

“For 10 years, I did all my work under a male name,” she says, explaining that she was thrice accused of plagiarizing the fictitious professor. “So I deliberately absented myself from the spotlight, and I let the work speak for me.”

Liu and Rao hadn’t met before Liu flew into Singapore, but had been in contact over Skype for the past few months.

“Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao both have a lot of admirers in their own worlds, and these worlds are far apart,” said Su, a sort of bon vivant on the art scene in Singapore. “They’ve never met—Lucy’s in the States; Shubigi is here—but they became ‘visual pen-friends’ to come up with an artistic dialogue, and they both agreed to work together to try to bring together a cultural understanding and exchange.”

As for Teo, who runs what she calls a “social history museum,” the show was a bit of a risk—they do show contemporary art from time to time, but it’s relatively rare, and they’ve never done a show quite like this one.

“I think there will be people who will come, honestly, they will come because it’s Lucy Liu. But then they will encounter more than that,” says Teo. “They will encounter two people who are artists, who are putting their heart out there.”

For Liu, it’s putting herself out there that’s the most difficult part.

“You get to know somebody through their art, and it’s so scary to think that somebody is going to see me a little bit, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?” she says. “Because when you’re acting, you’re playing a character, and you want people to see that person in any way that you format that person to be. But when you are showing your work, it's very intimidating. It’s terrifying.”

Thankfully, she was able to overcome those fears, because the show is engaging and unexpected. Liu’s works show an artist whose language is developing into something quite powerful. And paired with Rao, whose work is very challenging and critically beloved, Liu’s art career, like those found belongings that have found their place in the books she’s made, is starting to feel a little bit less unhomed.

Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings is on view now through February 24 at the National Museum of Singapore.

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