The Chinese artist Liu Bolin 刘勃麟 is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous figure in the international art scene. It seems obvious that almost everyone has already seen his peculiar photographs in which we vaguely distinguish a silhouette that is camouflaged like a chameleon into the background. This series entitled Hiding in the City corresponds to the first work he presented to the public.
Born in 1973 in Shandong province, Liu Bolin (now based in Beijing) first studied sculpture under the direction fo Sui Jianguo – a famous sculptor who became famous notably for his Mao-jacket sculptures or colourful tyrannosaurs. However ‘professor Liu’ – as we call him in China – will explore other mediums than sculpture and will deliberately combine photography, performance, and painting.
Far from being simplistic, his photographs offer several readings. One can appreciate them from a technical perspective for Liu Bolin has each time to pose while around ten of his assistants paint his whole body. They also convey the artist’s own anxieties, notably the fact that he has always considered himself as an outsider, a left-behind. They surely convey his bitter condemnation of today’s Chinese society, of its multiple issues and contradictions.
Suddenly the concept of invisibility makes sense: in the end Liu Bolin tries to render what is invisible visible. He seems to try to make people aware of the current state of one particular place, of common people’s existence, of his own desolation, of the burden of overwhelming authority or advertising images, and so forth. In other words, he reifies the more or less painful traces of human activities while disclosing that adaptation is impossible in such contemporary environment.
Many had the chance to interview ‘professor Liu’, with a particular emphasis on his series Hiding in the City. Yet I thought that a number of questions remained to be asked and that other series such as should receive equal attention. Hence on 2nd February 2012 I had the opportunity to interview Liu Bolin so that to know more about the above mentioned issues.
You started first your series Hiding in the City in China, what motivated you to realize it around the world? Is this still the same concept lying behind?
When I started the series my artworks reflected my protest against fatality and my investigations. I was calling into question my own way of life by hiding myself within typical Chinese sceneries. My artworks were testimonies to the developments of Chinese society and were all imbued with my own thoughts on society problems.
When I continued this series throughout the world the concept remained the same, which is questioning the ties that bind our existence. For instance in 2011 I have shot a same photograph few months apart in different cities (New York in June, Paris in April, Beijing in September) in which I stand in front of magazines and newspapers. Thus I made myself invisible in front of these newspapers all based in various places in the world, with dissimilar writings, stars, events, wars, local and international affairs.
Cultural and linguistic environment determine the ties that bind your existence. Like food feed man’s body, these dazzling headlines or made up events are feed for thoughts. They enter then into the realm of collective memory. In truth we consume ourselves. Regarding many places abroad that I have chosen, in general I question the relation between man and its environment. My body is a tool that enables me to inform the audience that in the end all the things created by our own hands make us disappear.
How to you select the places in which you will shot your picture?
I convey my ideas by making my body disappearing into various cultures and existential problems. Consequently, the way I chose a place depends on what I want to unveil, whether it is a concept, a place, a political environment or a civilization.
In 2005, you were forced to move out of a commune in the north of Beijing, in which you were living. You said that the destruction affected you deeply. The concept of invisible self-representation within the scenery sometimes in ruins may evoke the symbol of alienation and fear. It seems this worry about such massive destructions for modernity’s sake is shared with other artists, notably those who live in China and who have been experiencing it directly over the past two decades. Hence, would you say that there is an sort of anxiety about modernity within your artworks?
Off course, through my photographs I convey such feelings. I would like to make people aware of what is going on in China nowadays, to make them realize how ridiculous is Chinese development. More importantly, I want to remind to all the persons around me that I refuse to forget the past and that I want to summarize step by step our development. I wish I could improve the way we develop this country.
In your series Learn by Figure, you use symbolic colors that are red and yellow while representing traditional buildings or emblematic elements evoking authority. You seem to question the place of Chinese people within tradition and governmental legacies. Would you mind telling me more about this project please?
Through this series I mainly wanted to explore signs and forms that possess strong social meanings. In general, I put emblematic Chinese signs while using my technique of camouflage this time applied on some Chinese people’s faces. Then I finished by adding the name on a corner. I drew my inspiration from Chinese education and purges. Education here is limited to few simplistic signs and does not intend to educate one person individually; instead the only goals are to command and to obey. My photographs then help me to transmit my observations about society.
It seems that your photographs possess several readings. On the one hand, one can interpret it as ‘auto-portrait’ even if you are constantly hiding yourself; on the other one can regard it as ‘landscape photography’ in which you question the relationship between man and its environment. Would you qualify your artworks ‘auto-portrait’ or ‘landscape’ photography?
Actually I have never thought that my artworks could be classified in a specific genre. I even do not know if I am creating ‘landscape’ or ‘portrait’ photography. Meanwhile some people already asked me if I considered myself as a performer or as a photographer. In general I answer that I create ‘staged photographs’ for my artworks differ from ‘landscape photography’ and its pursuit of peculiar form, light, and color. Contrarily mine can be regarded as documents, as realist descriptions, as if they were a sequence from a film in which the camera only focuses on the actors’ oral performance.
What do you think about Chinese contemporary photography?
I think it can be divided in two types. There are first professional photographers who mainly use traditional techniques and who attach importance to composition and color, and whose attempts are to seize Chinese society’s developments. Then there are the contemporary artists-photographers from the dynamic art scene of Beijing, who possess an insightful viewpoint on Chinese society, who use digital techniques, and who consequently create artworks that reflect the spirit of our time.
Do you regard yourself as belonging to a specific tendency in art?
My artworks disclose my fascination of my profound thinking about society, this is their very nature, calling into question, reconsider things. Such ideas have much in common with the current trends that rethink entirely Chinese culture and thought. However these ideas are just a portion of Chinese ideals since art remains our president’s instrument.
Since the inception of photography, there have been plenty of photographers who took China as their main subject matter, for instance Lang Jingshan, Marc Riboud, Yang Yongliang, Edward Burtynsky, and
so forth. Is there any in particular that you prefer?
I like them all. I like any attempt to pass on history and reality through an intuitive process.
What are you expectations about the future?
I hope I will create more and better artworks. Besides, I wish that my efforts will lead to a better understanding of Chinese art values.
More information: Liu Bolin's website