You may know her better as one of Charlie’s Angels or that yukata-clad, katana-slinging villain in Kill Bill: Volume 1, but off-screen, Hollywood star and on-screen femme fatale Lucy Liu wields a mean paintbrush (and camera, needle and glue gun). A talented abstract artist, the New Yorker will be in Singapore for the first time this month to commemorate the opening of an exhibition featuring a selection of her works, alongside those of Singaporean artist and APB Foundation Signature Art Prize 2018 Jurors’ Choice Award recipient Shubigi Rao, whom she has never met, at the National Museum of Singapore.
Bringing the Pop to Culture
Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings, which runs from January 12 to February 24, bridges the worlds and works of both artists, casting a spotlight on the astounding parallels in two strangers’ art. Themes of culture, history, identity and relationships are explored and examined; incidentally, both Lucy and Shubigi are drawn to recontextualising found objects into new visual narratives. Having discovered intellectual chemistry as they corresponded, the two finally meet in the flesh at this exhibition – even as works from Lucy’s Lost and Found and Shubigi’s Stabbing at Immortality: Building a Better Jellyfish meet in a curatorial dialogue.
Organised in partnership with private non-profit arts organisation The Ryan Foundation, Unhomed Belongings is free to the public – accessibility being a cornerstone to promoting art awareness in Singapore and around the world. Ryan Su, the foundation’s namesake founding director and a colourful regular on the arts circuit, says Singapore’s developing art scene is ripe for showing “two artists who happen to be strong women as they navigate themes of identity and growth with such honesty and strength”.
Lucy’s art is highly visceral, often contemplating the idea of humanness, whether it is the concept of salvation or the way personal relationships transform us. The chaos in her work is raw – there’s an almost animal dynamism clawing through blended mediums such as painting, sculpture, collage and silk screen.
Likewise, in Stabbing at Immortality: Building a Better Jellyfish, Shubigi questions humanity’s unending quest for immortality and considers the biologically immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula. Human or animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, the essence of life is dissected and examined, and a bigger question is asked: How does life transform us? Whether through an unending stretch of life, a cycle of rebirths or the lengths of generations succeeding us, is there a way to live forever?
The Celebrity Pull
Unhomed Belongings will be Lucy’s first exhibition in a museum, although she has shown in various galleries and art fairs around the world as early as 1993, under the name Yu Ling. “I wanted people to come in with an open mind – without having an initial idea of who I was – so that they would see the works without labelling me alongside them,” she tells us. “My Chinese name is Yu Ling, so it was still me; it was just not the name by which people would recognise me. Many people know me as an actress, but visual art has always been an equally important part of my life.”
This time, Ryan is counting on her celebrity status to draw in crowds. A personal friend with Lucy and having visited her New York art studio, Ryan was moved by the beauty, strength and extent of her work, and resolved to bring her art to a wider audience. “Apart from being a serious artist, Lucy’s celebrity will certainly appeal to a large segment, especially visitors who have grown up watching Ally McBeal, Charlie’s Angels and even Kill Bill. We want these people to come out of their homes and see contemporary art,” he says.
Ryan, a recipient of the Patron Of The Arts Award by the National Arts Council, views this collaboration as a way to raise the profile of contemporary art in Singapore and Asia. “What The Ryan Foundation hopes to achieve is really simple: We want more people to become interested in art. By providing an entry point for people to get to know contemporary art, we grow the pie and sow the seeds of art appreciation.”
Echoing his enthusiasm, Lucy says: “I know this exhibition will have a lasting impact, and I hope to bring excitement and a sense of involvement to others who have thought about creating art, but just didn’t feel they had the instinct or ability.”
The two art lovers are multi-hyphenates who split their time among many roles and causes. Lucy is a mother, Unicef ambassador, producer, director and working actress, having just wrapped filming for the CBS drama series Elementary; Ryan actively juggles the responsibilities of The Ryan Foundation, frequent art excursions abroad and his legal practice.
Exactly two months after we began discussions, Prestige is finally in New York with both of them for an exclusive photo shoot. Lucy is ever the pro in front of the camera and reassuringly reaches out to Ryan when posing together; very quickly, their camaraderie translates onto the photos. Sharing their love of art came just as naturally.
How did the Unhomed Belongings exhibition come about?
Lucy Liu (LL): We have a mutual friend Daniel, the director of an art gallery in New York who manages some of my art-related activities. Dan has known Ryan for years and had introduced my artwork to him some time ago.
Ryan Su (RS): He finally introduced us over dinner one night in New York when we were both in town for some art exhibitions. He had been telling us about Lucy and her art for years, and I’m sure that he had been talking to her about us too – that’s why we hit it off immediately. It felt as if we had known each other for years! But Lucy is a very private person and her work is extremely personal, which was why our visit to her studio only took place later. That’s also why she wanted to be there to personally show us around and to tell us about her artistic practice. I could see her dedication just by looking at her artworks, that the time and effort spent creating them was substantial.
LL: We started discussing the idea of a possible project in Singapore about a year ago…
RS: We wanted to work with Lucy primarily because her work is excellent. She’s also very serious about it – she had even enrolled herself in art school [the New York Studio School] to learn about artmaking and to work with other artists.
LL: I love learning new things and being in a group environment. Signing up for art school was something I didn’t have to think twice about.
Was there a particular point that you realised, “I’m an artist”?
LL: I realised it’s not about being something, it’s about the being of something. Understanding that expression is part of life is what allows us to share and connect with ourselves and other people. It’s the process of growth and that is a reaction to what happens in the environment around you also.
So, what can we expect with this exhibition?
LL: I’m excited that it’s going to happen in the format of an artist dialogue with Shubigi Rao at the National Museum of Singapore. Unhomed Belongings is a compilation of similarly themed works by me and Shubigi, specially curated by the museum. There is a conversation that is illuminated between us, in our works, even though we’ve never met – a dialogue about belonging in the body and in the world that we were exploring individually. This also connects our works.
RS: You will see Lucy’s mastery of techniques, as a mixed-medium artist, throughout her oeuvre in Unhomed Belongings. Some of her works involve complicated techniques, such as weaving work at the back of the two-sided work, Velocity, and the intricate and delicate weaving on World Inside Rainbow. I also love the deliberate, delicate calligraphic work 72.
Is there anything you wish you were showing in Singapore, but isn’t travelling over?
LL: I painted a new series of works, working off personal photos. It was something I never explored before, and it was very eye-opening. One of the works I love most is a large family portrait. The new paintings I have are some of my favourites and I wish I could share them with everyone there, but the works are large, so it will have to be another time!
This is The Ryan Foundation’s third exhibition…
RS: Yes, we’ve done annual exhibitions since our first, Andy Warhol: Social Circus, in 2016, featuring the Polaroid photos by pop artist Andy Warhol. It attracted thousands of people on opening night, causing a traffic jam at Gillman Barracks after hours on a weeknight, which has never happened before! In 2017, we presented a virtual-reality work by New York-based artist Ryder Ripps in Venice, which was at the time at the cutting edge of contemporary art. We brought the exhibition back to Singapore and it proved very popular with audiences here, who were game to put on the virtual-reality headsets and participate in contemporary art. Some people may criticise this current exhibition as being about celebrity, but they’re missing the point entirely. The Ryan Foundation’s goals are developmental in nature: Arts awareness needs to be developed and if it takes a novel approach to get people to see art, we’re willing to take the risk. We need to break down barriers and make art less intimidating.
Art Director: Audrey Chan
Photographers: Caleb & Gladys
Fashion Editor: Jacquie Ang
Fashion stylist: Lee Harris
Hair: Marco Santini/Tracey Mattingly, LLC
Makeup: Rebecca Restrepo/Tracey Mattingly, LLC, using Surratt Beauty
Grooming: Ann Benjamas/Wilhelmina Artists, using Suqqu Kanebo
Photography Assistance: Fernando Sippel
Set Designer: Tim Ferro
Location: Milk Studios