'I have been known to dumpster-dive," says Lucy Liu. "If I see something really fascinating and warped or distorted, like a piece of metal, I'll jump over and grab it and create something from it." Liu is talking about the roots of an artistic urge that began in the wastelands of Queens, New York, where she grew up. "There was something very warm about sitting in this environment of junk and rubble and discarded things, lost things. I had such a feeling of being at home."
This dumpster-diving "Lucy from the block" image is difficult to square with the elegantly attired woman curled up on a chair in front of me at Salon Vert, a smart London gallery whose walls are currently hung with her work. The only available frame of reference is her super slo-mo gymnastic leaping in the Charlie's Angels movies, but it probably didn't happen like that.
Liu has always been an artist, she explains. Even while she was shooting movies, she would be drawing or sewing in her trailer. But seven years ago, she scratched her art itch more seriously by moving back to New York, buying a live-in studio, and enrolling at the New York Studio School. "I realised it was something I needed to do," she says. "It was important for me to go in that direction for my own sanity. So I went for the summer and I just realised, 'Oh my God. There's so much here that I need to explore.'"
There's no evidence of dumpster-diving at Salon Vert. The works are mostly panels of grey linen with skulls and spinal columns stitched into them, crisscrossed by lattices of thread, and augmented by small pieces of glass, butterfly wings in little wooden boxes, and other found objects. Downstairs is the piece that gives the exhibition its name: Seventy Two, a grid of 72 small paintings, mostly black ink on white paper, quickly executed. Some look like Chinese calligraphy, others are more western-influenced, abstract smears and blots. Some look highly deliberate, others accidental.
The inspiration was the 72 Names of God, a Jewish mystical concept derived from the Book of Exodus. These names, and their ascribed characteristics, are believed by some Kabbalah followers to be an aid to enlightenment. "You can meditate on each title," Liu explains, "and you can manifest that into your life, whether it's prosperity, healing or fertility. There's 72 different possibilities. I thought that was really fascinating." (From Wikipedia: The name itself is derived from Exodus 14:19-21, three verses each composed of 72 letters; by writing these out in boustrophedon form so that the second line is reversed, and grouping the letters in columns of threes (see table below), the names of 72 angels or intelligences or 72 Names of God are formed.)
The word Kabbalah now generally brings to mind Madonna and other celebrity adherents, rather than a school of Jewish mystical thought that's been around for centuries, possibly millennia. This has in turn focused attention on the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Center, which has been derided for peddling "McMysticism", and for charging exorbitant prices for bracelets made of red string (infused with protective powers, they say, having been wrapped seven times around the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem) and bottled water (able to cure cancer and radiation contamination, apparently).
Liu has been spotted on Kabbalah courses, and leaving New York's Kabbalah Center wearing a red bracelet. She's not wearing it today, but she is coy about her involvement. "I had friends that were studying it. It reminds me of Taoism," she says. "It's mind over matter, essentially, and I'm fascinated by that. But I'm also fascinated by Buddhism – my mother's a Buddhist. There are so many different things to study, so many different fragments that come together."
Kabbalah has something of a mixed reputation, I venture. "I think it's unfortunate when people are against something that can bring so much guidance for people," she says. "I don't know much about Scientology – I know a little bit about it – but if it helps someone become less addicted to something, or not addicted, or if it helps someone recover from abuse, you can never say it's bad."
Hang on, are we talking about Kabbalah or Scientology now? "Anything. Anything that has an odd or misinterpreted name. People malign the Catholic church for sexual abuse and the discrepancies of wealth, but they just don't know. Or there's the same idea about people being Muslim. If you don't know enough about it, if it's scary and it's the unknown, it creates that enigmatic quality of distance, of disconnect, and I think that prevents you seeing someone else. You've already seen them before you've actually even met them."
Liu's Seventy Two has also been turned into a weighty hardback book, retailing at £200. As well as reproductions of her paintings, it features essays on Kabbalistic history and an appreciation of Liu's art by alternative health guru Deepak Chopra: "I'd like to introduce you to the art of telepathy via the telepathy of art. Lucy Liu's paintings are a lovely vehicle for this."
Liu has also written a short meditation for each of the 72 images, "for those who wish to further contemplate and engage". A couple of broad black brushstrokes inside a thinly drawn square are entitled Self Esteem. "I will not quit myself," its meditation runs. "I am an essential life force that generates joy and abundance. I get out of my own way and witness miracles." Defying Gravity, comprising some grey lines that look like a cross between a Chinese character and a squashed spider, is accompanied by: "Lifting my anchor, I float. As I follow the current with purpose and self-assurance, I am elevated to a higher dimension of being." There are 70 more like this.
Writing these meditations was one of the most difficult parts, says Liu. "You don't want to be too esoteric but you want to help take the ideas and the thoughts you have when you think of the title and focus them." But all these nuggets of self-help wisdom will strike some as beyond parody, and seem at odds with the abstract intent of the work. Did she really have to put them in? "I wanted to. That was what the book was about. It's a choice. It's an art book first, and if you want to go deeper, you can."
Perhaps Liu's art, and her spiritual quest, is best viewed in the context of her unorthodox life. Her parents came from Beijing and Shanghai and met in New York, where they got by however they could, she says. Despite being a trained civil engineer, her father sold digital clock pens to make a living. "We had no patterns when I was young. There was no ritual, no Sunday dinner together."
Nor was her parents' work ethic particularly conducive to creativity. "I don't know if they saved any art I did as child. I was convinced I was adopted from a very early age because there was no trace. I guess, in the end, that's what this show is about: the idea that there's no trace. There is a history, but it's almost invisible unless you come and start to discover it and allow yourself to examine it closer."
Liu is one of the most prominent Asian-American actors in history, but it has been a struggle to find decent work. Even her best-known role, Ling Woo in the hit TV series Ally McBeal, a role the writer created specifically for her, was criticised by many as a variation on the western stereotype of the oriental "dragon lady": aggressive, unemotional and sexually exotic. Quentin Tarantino did little to deflate this stereotype in Kill Bill, in which Liu played a female samurai who beheaded someone in a boardroom. There is an "invisible racism" in the industry, she says. "A lot of people assume that you don't experience racism because your skin is pale. We might all be Americans, but there's not really equality there."
Rare are the movies that treat her as just another character; Charlie's Angels is a notable exception. The flipside is that she's now a celebrity in China as well as the west (look out for her next year in The Man With the Iron Fists, a period martial arts epic about a village blacksmith, co-starring Russell Crowe). Rather than exploiting that appeal, though, she has generally been happier working on stage, in small, independent movies and in her studio.
"These works are about that cultural separation as well," she says, referring to the stitched backbone pieces. "That idea of the visual [representation] of invisibility. The idea of nothingness and the un-naming of names. And the idea that you can create changes in your body through your emotional aspect of living." The stitching and the found objects, she explains, were inspired by totems she saw people making in Africa on her travels as a Unicef ambassador.
Although this isn't her first show, it is the first time she has exhibited under her own name, having previously used her Chinese one, Liu Yu-ling. "If I see something when I'm travelling," she says, "or if I come upon something and I don't understand it, I want to know more about it. I have to do something with it. Otherwise, it's like rehearsing something but never actually performing it. You just feel like you're going to explode."
You could almost say Liu is on a global dumpster dive: fishing out bits from disparate belief systems, cultures and artistic schools – and fashioning them into personal souvenirs of her spiritual tourism. The public might prefer to see her leaping about the screen – but this, at least, is a role she has chosen for herself.