A significant new art exhibition in Singapore sparks a cross-continental conversation between two seemingly disparate women artists who have never met in person – and is a kind reminder that beneath all superficialities, we as human beings have much more in common than we might think.
This is Chinese American Hollywood actress Lucy Liu’s first museum show, and her work is being presented in parallel with that of Shubigi Rao, a Singaporean artist, writer and lecturer of Indian heritage.
I was surprised to learn that Liu has been making art far longer than we’ve known her for being one of Charlie’s Angels, and previously presented work under her Chinese name Yu Ling. Rao on the other hand is a self-proclaimed shy, yet powerfully eloquent woman who employed the male pseudonym Shubigi Raoul for ten years in order to gain access and be accorded sufficient respect in academic communities to carry out her work.
The exhibition is remarkable in its willingness to pay homage to deeply personal, lived experiences. It is also a milestone for being the first contemporary art show hosted at a museum that typically adopts a social history lens.
What stood out is that two of the flagship works in the exhibition are patently incomplete.
Liu’s ‘Lost and Found’ is an ode to the romantic notion that discarded objects have feelings. A series of 200 hand-bound books made from scrap material from a book factory in China, each book contains trash and other odd knick-knacks picked up on her travels over the last seven years. Liu had not felt that this work was ready for viewing, but was eventually persuaded by curators to show this interactive piece. Visitors are invited to ‘read’ the books and rediscover new meaning for these abandoned things.
Rao’s 'Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book', is a decade-long film, book and visual arts undertaking to document the history of book destruction around the world. The project is currently halfway through and beautifully demonstrates Rao’s liminality as both artist and writer. Traveling alone and mostly unaided, Rao conducts extensive field research, yet does so in complete embrace of the unreliability of narration – even relying on Google Translate for interviews in languages she does not understand. Two of five intended books in the ‘Pulp’ series have been published, and are on display.
We should not mistake this feminine exploration of subjectivity and feeling for softness and frailty. To me, Liu and Rao’s works strongly emphasize that there are different shades of power to be held when we construct narratives with candour and openness. We discover autonomy in shaping one’s identity and relationships, and gain socio-political influence in sparking dangerous ideas that textbook history wants to omit.
The exhibit reminded me that our stories protect us and give us a sense of comfort and belonging, within ourselves and in our societies.
Going through the exhibition, I got a real sense of art and books as a mother-healer figures that provide our myriad ideas with a home. As the only discipline where multiplicity of meaning has a welcome existence that is not regarded as an affront to knowing, art values our personal identity and experience. For sentimental creatures with the slightest inclinations to hoarding, or anyone with a memory and emotional capacity in fact, Unhomed Belongings is heartfelt and deeply relatable.
Lucy Liu and Shubigi Rao: Unhomed Belongings is on view from 12 January to 24 February 2019 at the National Museum of Singapore’s Stamford Gallery, Level 1. The exhibition is co-presented by private non-profit arts organisation The Ryan Foundation. Admission is free for all.