Creation Unfolding

Ling DeBellis pushes the boundaries of what makes us human.

Spring 2023
By Hilary C. Ritz

Photo of Ling DeBellis ’23 by Brandon Martin
Photo by Brandon Martin

Mixed media artist and evolutionary biologist Ling DeBellis ’23 recently wrote on Instagram, “I am not one thing. I am Vietnamese. And Chinese. And American. And Jewish. I use a wheelchair. But I walk sometimes too. I am a scientist. I am an artist too. These are my labels ... but they do not define me.” And it seems unlikely that she will be pinned down anytime soon.

DeBellis’ story begins in southern China, close to the Vietnam border. Born in an orphanage, she suffered a “polio-like illness” in early childhood but found a loving home with adoptive parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That blend of cultures and experiences, she says, has shaped what she’s studied and how she has combined her passions.

According to her website, DeBellis’ vision is to create a world where art and science are complementary, bridging the divide between creativity and analysis. She adds, “Life without science is a world without discovery. Life without art is an empty abyss ... To be human is to balance both.”

She has taken this vision seriously, producing several notable installations in the last three years, including her latest offering, “Butterflies,” an experimental film that showed at the Sleepy Cyborg Gallery in Sewall Hall Jan. 20–Feb. 19. Created by DeBellis and composer Antonio Sanz Escallón, “Butterflies” is presented in three sections and centers around “DeBellis’ semi-autobiographical abstraction in response to maturity, femininity and changing perspectives over the past several years.” The final section DeBellis describes, in part, with the powerful words, “Wherever I go, my body is mine.”

Life without science is a world without discovery. Life without art is an empty abyss ... To be human is to balance both.

As she has developed her vision as an artist, DeBellis has produced works that are unconventional, to say the least. Just when we think we might understand her artistic direction, she catches us off guard with something altogether different. 

still from “Butterflies” (2023) by Ling DeBellis and Antonio Sanz Escallón
Here and above: Stills from “Butterflies” (2023) by Ling DeBellis and Antonio Sanz Escallón

“Quercus Avium” features a slowly shifting light program in the canopy of Martel Quad’s sprawling live oak accompanied by a 28-minute birdsong soundscape — lovely and atmospheric and similar in some ways to “Butterflies” — but then we discover her works “Regurgitation” and “Spermatozoa” and that they are, in fact, accurately named. 

The former offers “an aesthetic critique on the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women” through a depiction of Asian women chewing up and spitting out exotic fruit, while the latter is an artistic presentation of real human semen preserved in transparent epoxy beverage coasters as a “literal conversation starter on human sexuality.”

But then again, “Le Boeuf en Concert” presents violinist Connor Chaikowsky ’23 and pianist Tomás Jonsson ’22 playing Sergei Dreznin’s “Circus Fantasy” alongside footage from the 1936 Soviet film “Circus,” which DeBellis spent painstaking hours editing frame by frame to fit the music. The result is an enchanting nine-minute journey into a bygone era.

DeBellis is right; she certainly isn’t “one thing” — not any more than art or science are one thing. She says, “Rice has been such an awesome sandbox to play around in, with different disciplines and different fields. ... I’m going to keep pushing those boundaries of understanding us and why we’re here.” And her viewers will continue to watch her unfold with fascination. 

Video by Brandon Martin