Lucy Liu picking up stuff on the streets with her bare hands is not the first image that comes to mind when you think of someone who’s starred in movies like Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill and the television series Elementary.
But apparently, she does that a lot.
“I’ve always collected objects and been criticised for picking things off the street without gloves and putting them in my purse. I find it abhorrent to pollute and waste things,” she said.
“It’s gotten to the point where people see me at work, they automatically hand me a ziplock bag.”
Some of these items (all cleaned up, of course) have now found their way to Singapore as part of Liu’s artwork.
FINDING A HOME FOR DISCARDED THINGS
Fresh from presenting at the recent Golden Globes, the 50-year-old actress is in town to showcase her lesser-known artistic side.
Opening on Saturday (Jan 12), as a lead-up to Singapore Art Week, is Unhomed Belongings, an exhibition where she is paired with Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao.
The show, which is a joint collaboration between the National Museum of Singapore and The Ryan Foundation, is Liu’s first museum exhibition and it features a number of works shown alongside Rao’s own pieces.
While they had never met before, the exhibit shows some uncannily similar themes in their respective practice – lots of works in ink and having to do with books, libraries and generally overlooked things.
Among Liu’s contributions is Lost And Found. It's an ongoing project that began in 2012 and features a series of books that visitors can flip open to reveal actual objects she’s collected through the years – an empty Tic Tac box, a crushed can of Coke, a piece of string.
“These were once important but now discarded and the idea is to find a home for all these things,” she said.
She added that there are several books that haven't been done yet and she still goes around picking things everywhere she goes. But Singapore's streets have been too clean for her.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing on the ground!"
Elsewhere are two huge paintings (where she painted over her own paintings based on her family photographs), a series of ink drawings inspired by the Kabbala, and a striking mixed-media work that the born-and-bred New Yorker created in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – a collage of objects and images she had taken at the site, which she describes as “a discussion about the loss we all felt during that time”.
TURNING JUNK INTO TOYS
Despite being known more for her Hollywood credentials, making art is something Liu takes seriously.
Speaking at the media preview, she said: “It’s very important to consistently express. That doesn’t just come in the form of acting – it’s something that is connected to whatever medium you’re working with. To me, it’s important to share these works.”
Sharing her art with young people, in particular, is something Liu, who is also a UNICEF ambassador, feels strongly about.
Referring to her discarded-stuff-turned-artwork, she recounted an encounter with a group of children in Lebanon during the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
“We sat in an empty room, and there were some rocks and a broken lock and other mishmash pieces of (what) people would normally would see as junk. But to them, they became unbelievable toys.”
But Liu didn’t have to go elsewhere to develop a fondness for random objects. “I grew up with very little money and we didn’t have a lot. We made the best of what we had,” shared Liu, who described herself as a “latchkey kid”.
“As a child, I treasured things – we used to go to this broken-down lot and the objects (found there) became toys to me.”
LANDING CHARLIE’S ANGELS
Liu shared her experiences growing up in Queens as a daughter of migrants. “My parents came from China; we spoke Chinese at home. I was behind in school because I didn’t have a grasp of the language. I didn’t have a sense of myself until I went to college.”
She also recalled just how important landing her Charlie’s Angels role felt. At that time, she was working on the TV series Ally McBeal in her breakout role as Ling Woo, and she asked creator David Kelley for some time off to do the movie.
"I said, ‘Listen, this is not Shakespeare, this is not anything that is close to that, but this is an important moment for America – if I represent someone who (was previously) cast as a Caucasian, it’s going to help change the way people see things."
With Liu being one of the most visible American actors of Asian descent in Hollywood today, that certainly seems to be the case.
As for Liu’s artist side, the exhibition could very well be a way of changing the way people see her.
Her fellow artist in Unhomed Belongings, for one, recalled how she wanted to see Liu’s work first to be sure that the show would work.
“The moment I saw her works online, I knew this was something I could completely understand,” said Rao, whose works in the show included an ongoing project like Liu's Lost And Found called Pulp, where she's been looking at the destruction of libraries and books across the world since 2014.
Describing Liu’s works as something that draws one in closer, Rao said: “(She) shouldn’t only be seen as Lucy Liu the actress and famous celebrity but as an artist.”
Unhomed Belongings runs from Jan 12 to Feb 24 at the National Museum of Singapore. Admission is free. For more details on Singapore Art Week, visit https://www.artweek.sg/