American actress Lucy Liu collects trash. Twisted bits of wire, crushed soda cans, rusty keys – at some point, she has picked them off the street with her bare hands and put them in her purse.
It has got to the point where she goes to work and people automatically hand her a Ziploc bag to store such items. “I find it abhorrent to pollute and to waste things,” says the 50-year-old. “We grew up with very little money. We made the best of what we had.”
For the past six years, the Hollywood star and director has been turning this trash into art, cutting spaces out of the pages of some 200 handmade books and gluing the objects in them – a process that wore her fingers raw.
This ongoing series, Lost And Found, is one of the artworks on show at Unhomed Belongings, a joint exhibition she is holding with Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao which runs from Jan 12 until Feb 24 at the National Museum of Singapore.
Both she and Rao, 43, work with found objects. The themes of loss, memory and belonging permeate their work.
“I think that when you connect to … art, it heightens your level of being a human being,” says Liu. “It gives you accessibility to something and makes you feel like you’re not alone. And I want people to feel like they belong somewhere in the world and that they are not by themselves.”
“The best of humanity comes out when we look at each other’s work,” says Rao, who won the Juror’s Prize Award at the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize last year for the first portion of her decade-long project Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book, now at its mid-point. Parts of it are shown in Unhomed Belongings.
The two had not met previously and were introduced by the museum and non-profit arts organisation The Ryan Foundation, which is co-presenting the exhibition.
The foundation’s director Ryan Su befriended Liu over a sushi dinner in New York and later visited her studio, where he was impressed by her work – including Lost And Found, which she had not intended to show at first as it was unfinished, but he eventually persuaded her to.
“I want to create (a Lost And Found book) in Singapore,” she says. “But fortunately or unfortunately, there is nothing on the ground.”
It is her first time in Singapore. She arrived fresh from the Golden Globe Awards in California, where she was a presenter for the Singapore-set film Crazy Rich Asians.
She is best known for starring in action film Charlie’s Angels (2000) – at a time when few Asian-American actresses got leading roles onscreen – as well as appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and the TV procedural Elementary, the final season of which she recently wrapped filming for.
But she was an artist before she was an actress, experimenting with collage in high school when she was 15. “There’s so many artists that I find fascinating,” she says. “I would’ve loved to have met (Dutch abstract expressionist Willem) de Kooning … and (French-American painter and sculptor) Louise Bourgeois.”
She finds exhibiting her work scary because of how exposed it makes her feel. “When you’re acting, you’re playing a character and you want people to see that person in the way you format them to be. But when you show your work, it’s intimate and terrifying.”
In the exhibition, Liu deals with loss and violence in works such as Velocity, created in response to the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. She took photographs of the destroyed World Trade Centre, made a collage of them and embroidered a city skyline on it.
On the other side of the canvas, she strung up a network of discarded objects, drawing on the traditions of Congolese protective fetishes and Japanese wish trees.
In Pulp, Rao documents in various media the history of book destruction, such as the 1992 shelling of Sarajevo’s national library. “It is, I think, a futile attempt to psychoanalyse why our species loves violence and defaults so easily to it,” she says.
Both Liu and Rao consider themselves cultural misfits. Rao, who is married with a son, was born in India but had an Anglicised upbringing, for which she was ostracised.
Liu, a single mother with one son, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. During auditions, she recalls, she would be sidelined for not being Asian enough – because she lacked an exotic accent – or conversely not being American enough.
The exhibition contains two paintings from Liu’s Family series, which is based on family photographs she discovered in 2016 while caring for her ailing father. While she later painted over them with subversive images such as a nude figure, she left one, titled Family Portrait, untouched.
“My father passed away last October,” she says. “I painted that before he did, so it has a special resonance – a way of remembering my childhood in a positive way.”
She believes it is important for children and youth to have access to art. “The availability of art now is so limited because there are so many cuts and budgets in schools. There are studies that show kids who have accessibility to art or do art have a better ability to balance and develop their brains.
“Art is part of education and it is going to help clear the way for a much better political system and infrastructure in undeveloped and developed worlds.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network