It’s the final day of Beili Liu’s installation Lure at the Chinese Culture Center, so Saturday finds me hiking through Chinatown in the heat, a little worst for wear thanks to Independence Day libations the night before. I’m a bit intimidated to discover the Center is located within the Hilton Hotel. A quick elevator ride and a near brush with the artist herself on the way in (wish I wasn’t so painfully shy about striking up a conversation) and soon I have the place to myself.
The signage explains that the work revolves around the idea of a red thread that connects soul mates in Chinese folklore. I’m actually familiar with this legend from the anime series Urusei Yatsura, that great primer on Japanese myth and the supernatural for the uninitiated, so I take it that it’s one held in common with other Asian cultures.
The exhibit’s namesake is a stunning installation that fills the first room and spills into the next. Countless red threads dangle from the ceiling, each forming a small wheel just inches above the ground. As you walk around the work, they sway gently with your passing, casting lily pad-shaped shadows on the carpeting below. The lily pad image probably springs to mind because, taken together, they give the impression of nothing so much as the surface of a shallow pond: the languid drift of the shadows, the suspended wheels all floating gently in an almost level plane.
That first impression to me is important, because I think one of the most powerful aspects of a good installation is one of presence. Taken together, the collection of threads create something greater than the sum of their parts. They become something like an environment of their own, rainfall frozen in place en route to the surface of a pool.
And then the whole assembly sweeps upward as it stretches into the adjoining room and the wheels dangle overhead. It’s like that first glance of the beloved and your spirits lifting you up and now experience itself seems personified.
It is such a moving presence that you’d be excused from missing the little details that Liu has worked into the piece. It is not a uniform production of red threads and whorls. It takes me a while to notice that each string ends in a needle, the myth of the red thread taken literally. It is after all, a sentimental kind of belief, so saccharine and comforting that one might be lulled into forgetting that pain is an integral feature of love. Some threads lack the flat spool at the end altogether- a love perhaps more distinguished by the pain it causes than anything else. Others spill onto the ground in a tangle; love that so overwhelms as to make one feel as if they were drowning happily in it?
It won’t dawn on me until much later that the very simple and obvious implication of the title Lure is that the threads, needles and pool-like delineation suggest that of bait and tackle; all of us being willing fish ready to literally fall hook, line and sinker. We do say after all when we find something we can’t get enough of that we’re “hooked.” The reassurance that “there’s someone out there for us all” contrasts with the rebellion we might feel at the notion of destiny as inevitable and unavoidable.
Liu has tackled this idea from so many angles that it is hard not to find new meanings the more you look. The old belief in the red thread is usually evoked personally, the tie between such and such a person and another. By creating a work incorporating multitudes of threads she makes us step back and recognize the community of feeling, the suffering and soaring that is deeply personal but shared by everyone around you. It is going on around us everywhere you go, but the connections are as invisible as a tightly drawn thread.
Briefly (there are numerous works in the exhibit that I won’t go into here) I want to mention another exceptional piece entitled Tie.Untie. This was found near the back of the gallery and at first glance appears something like a big mound of vermicelli with a concaved portion in the center. Projected in that middle space is video of two hands busily teasing a tangle of red thread floating in water. Little seems to be accomplished as the mass swirls about yet the fingers dutifully continue at their task. Are we looking at the deific hands whose charge it is to make sure that mass of intention is realized despite the turmoil and crossed paths we travel in life? If so, it must prove exasperating to the gods themselves: at one point, the hands leave off their occupation and we are left with that mass of string drifting in suspension like a billow of smoke.