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When Yu Ling Met S. Raoul

Lucy Liu created big waves for Singapore earlier in the week when she made mention of her upcoming art show jointly presented by the National Museum and The Ryan Foundation, while on the Golden Globe Awards red carpet.

In Unhomed Belongings, which opens to the public on 12 January, Liu has teamed up with well-known and award-winning Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao to present an exhibition about the notions of loss, destruction and salvation.

Shubigi Rao (left) and Lucy Liu (right)

Universally acknowledged as a big draw for popular audiences, the question remains– is Liu’s art any good? What’s the exhibition actually like?  Ryan Su of The Ryan Foundation was quick to address the elephant in the room at a press event for the exhibition:

“I bet you guys are thinking – what kind of art can Lucy Liu make? But when I saw it – and I see a lot of art – I was like, my God! We have to do something!”

Not just an actress!

Here’s a quick look at some of the works so you can judge for yourself:

Velocity (2001)

Velocity is a mixed- media work created in response to the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Here, images of the World Trade Centre are collaged together with an embroidered skyline, creating a constructed cityscape. On the other side of the work are discarded objects which symbolize the lost lives as a result of the tragedy. The work also incorporates protective layers of string which reference the Congolese fetish dolls that Liu had seen on a trip to Africa as a UNICEF Ambassador in 2017, and also Japanese traditions of wish trees. Here, wishes are written on cloth or paper and then tied to trees or poles in temples in the hope that they will be fulfilled. Christian iconography infuses the work as well, which particularly resonates with Liu’s own varied cultural background.

Indeed, Liu spoke to the press about her experience as a child of immigrants from China and on how she had grown up in America speaking Chinese at home, but yet was found to be “not Asian enough” for certain acting roles.

Her frank admission that her (arguably) best –known 2000 film Charlie’s Angels, was a “silly popcorn film…not Shakespeare or anything even close to that,” was oddly moving. She further explained that it had been an important role for her to accept regardless of its artistic merits, because the role had been originally cast for a Caucasian, and would help to change how people saw the “face of things.”

With Liu’s background, and her assumed responsibilities on the changing of perceptions in Hollywood, Velocity made us think about the complicated nature of personal identity. To this end, her background as a Hollywood star – and the experiences that the role has afforded her- served to add to the work, rather than detract (or distract) from it.

There is certainly a performative quality to her on-going artwork Lost and Found, in which Liu places discarded found objects into books, which are then placed on shelves:

Audiences are encouraged to pick up the books, browse through them and replace them in any order that they like. In so doing, the audience “partakes in a cycle of rediscovery” with the lost objects gaining new meaning through the audience’s re-ordering of each piece.

Conceptually, this isn’t too far different from the way in which popular audiences engage with movies and television – absorbing the content and then internalizing it with their own reactions and narratives. In this case, however, the same is done with books and the unexpected surprise of the found objects discovered within them. It’s a great allegory for the multilayered aspects of Liu’s own personality, being amongst others, an actress, artist, Chinese, Western and a UNICEF Ambassador.

The masking of identities for the sake of art was also a topic that both Rao and Liu addressed. Liu spoke about making art under her Chinese name ‘Yu Ling’ explaining that she hadn’t wanted to be pigeonholed as the actress from Charlie’s Angels or Kill Bill, or who had been in a number of action movies. She explained:

“It’s hard when you are already an actor to come up with another label or hat, even though I’d been making art way before I’d become an actress.”

Rao too had previously made work under a pseudonym ‘S. Raoul,’ lamenting that it had been necessary to, amongst others, stop people from looking at her work in a gendered way. She explained,

“It used to drive me crazy when people called me ‘girl’ to infantilise me.”

Her work Useful Fictions is one of the first pieces that one will come across in the show and is a series of works on paper named after Hans Vaihinger’s theory that most human concepts are just  “useful fictions” which arise out of the human need to create illusions. The premise here is that the comfort of falsehoods is needed by human beings in order to assuage anxieties about the future.

Useful Fictions (2013)

A more detailed look at the work can be found here and its spidery inky lines and poetic pronouncements such as “you can hug knowledge to yourself, cradle your intellect, but forgetting is inevitable,” speak to a general human condition that transcends gender. As is to be expected of Rao’s artistic practice, there is little in this work which immediately identifies it as a presentation by a “female artist.” In a similar vein, Liu’s Velocity is deeply raw and almost stereotypically masculine in the way that it evokes the imagery of broken rubble juxtaposed against bloody blobs and harsh primary- coloured gridlines.

This is not a big exhibition, but it’s certainly intriguing. In the words of Angelita Teo, Director of the National Museum:

“People might come because it’s Lucy Liu, but they will discover so much more.”


Unhomed Belongings opens to the public on 12 January and runs till 24 February.

(All images courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore)

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