You could say it all started with a bulldozer. Nine years ago, the neighborhood where artist Liu Bolin had his studio was seized by the Chinese government and subsequently razed. Liu was pissed, to say the least. There is a short list of transgressions in life that can make one feel truly powerless, invisible, and blindingly mad. This was one of them.
From that rage, an idea formed.
To express his protest against the repressive regime, he took to the streets – and to the rivers, and to 'The Wall,' and the theaters, and the supermarkets – not to march, but rather, to stand still, absolutely still, for 10 hours at a time while he had himself meticulously painted into his backgrounds. Suddenly, this "camouflage," this artistic act of disappearance became his megaphone. By becoming invisible, he captured the world's attention.
Images courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Liu Bolin
Bolin’s “Hiding in the City” Series (2005-Present) has now traveled the globe and reflects on a range of contemporary issues from consumerism to the environment. In this specially commissioned work for The Standard, Liu chose The Top of The Standard in New York. As a little holiday bonus, we reproduced the work not as a photograph, but as a puzzle. You can enjoy finding the Invisible Man in the online version of our puzzle found here.
We emailed Mr. Bolin and asked him about his inspirations, his tricks to endurance, and his hopes for China and America alike.
Behind the scenes at The Standard, High Line. Photos Joy Jacobs
STANDARD CULTURE: What draws you to your hiding places?
Liu Bolin: My camouflage artwork is rooted in my reflections and deep concerns about the contemporary social environment in China. Developments in China, particularly in recent years, constitute a threat to the dissolution of human beings against the political and economic background. Based on these kinds of concerns, I began creating a body of works featuring the “Invisible” man. Accompanying China’s progress, a series of problems emerged: food safety, land seizures, and damage to the ecosystem, etc. These problems bring about danger and denials to our bodies, our spirits, and our future. I chose to express my concerns by blending myself into backgrounds.
When did you first have the idea to “hide” as a way to “show”? Did anything specific trigger that idea?
Nine years ago, the government seized the land of the art district where I worked. My studio was torn down. To protest against the government, I created a camouflage artwork. I expressed my dissent and questions about land seizure by making myself invisible. At this time, I simply used my work as an outlet for anger. After I gradually calmed down, I was able to reflect upon contemporary Chinese society, and I tried to use this format to remind people about these problems around us. I made a work called "Supermarket." Several friends of mine told me that they didn’t realize the danger of plasticizing agents in soft drinks until they saw the work.
We've read that your parents were not pleased with your choice of career, a common occurrence in any culture, but in China, your parents lived through a time when being an artist was not just frowned upon, but actively persecuted. Even the possession of art, of any kind, was considered bourgeois and an act of defiance. Does history give you a sense of conviction and purpose in what you do?
I have discussed this issue with many people coming from different parts of the world. Many of them had dreams of becoming an artist when they were young, but their parents or elders didn’t support their love for art, because older generations think that their children couldn’t support themselves as artists.
My parents didn’t like art at that time, for a simple reason: when I was in high school, which was thirty years ago, learning art suggested delinquent behaviors and a distraction to one’s proper pursuit. Even nowadays, people still regard grades as the primary indicator of a child's potential; only kids who can’t obtain good marks choose to study art. In fact, I was a decent student, who simply enjoyed making drawings.
Images courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Liu Bolin
You mentioned that you train/prepare yourself for your extended periods of standing. How does one do that? Lots of squats? Meditation?
I have to stand throughout the entire session, which can be more than ten hours. Standing is not the hardest part. The most difficult thing is to stand there without eating, drinking, or going to the bathroom. I have to reduce the amount of food and drink that I consume the day before. Additionally, I need to go the gym to strengthen my legs, my hips, and my back. When I am standing still, I became an embodiment of my belief in art, and a symbol of my rebellion.
What do you think about when you’re being painted?
I am thinking about how standing there parallels my struggle against my fate, and how I fought for my dream. After going through all the trials and tribulations, I finally have the chance to show my artistic talents; I have been in the battle fighting against my fate. When I am standing still, I am not only making art—that is the appearance—I am actually struggling against my destiny.
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 83 - Supermarket, 2009, image courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Liu Bolin
Much of your art is a critique of consumerism. What is it that you are warning people about? Is it the poison in the products, or is the act of consumption its own kind of poison?
The current social pattern of consumerism exerts a great impact on how people think and feel. The manifestation of consumerism in my work actually represents my reflection upon the “Made in China” phenomenon, as well as China’s role as the world’s largest manufacturer, and the mentality emerging with the resurgence of the country—such as how some Chinese citizens lost their moral bottom lines to seek shortcuts that lead to material wealth. My works are not a variation of American pop art that praise light and colors. I express my questions and suspicions. For example, the food we consume is not safe: in my work "Supermarket," I communicate my concerns with my audience. We really have no idea about which bottle of water is safe to drink, and I can’t find one bottle of water that I will drink without being concerned. It is misleading to consider my work as criticism of consumerism—my works actually record the collective concern regarding our living environment.
You’ve painted yourself into two different artists’ work: JR and Kenny Scharf. Why those artists?
In 2011, I collaborated with Kenny Scharf in New York. I created this piece out of our mutual fondness for graffiti art. Through the collaboration with Kenny Scharf, a renowned graffiti artist, I hope to learn more about graffiti as an art form, its place in American art, and more broadly about art in America.
I worked with JR in the spring of 2012, and I like how he represents European culture. By using advanced printing technology, featuring common people as if they were celebrities, JR centralized the underprivileged group. His practice indicates the opportunity for de-centralization, and promotion of arts at the periphery. I like these two artists very much. Through these collaborations, I have new understanding about how great artists from other countries think, and their places in their own cultures.
What do you hope for China? If you could improve one thing what would it be?
As an art professional, I wish Chinese people would appreciate culture, different ways of thinking, and personal cultivation. I admire how people from the West love art as if the ability to appreciate art is in their nature. Since art can help to cultivate the mind and the taste of the entire nation, if I can change one thing, I hope people would reconsider their perceptions on art, especially on Chinese art. If it is possible, I hope my work inspires people to pay more attention to Chinese art, to the new form of art made by the new generation of artists. Though my effort and efforts made by artists from this generation, I hope the essence of traditional Chinese culture could demonstrate its vitality while exchanging and communicating with other cultures, so that China might gain respect and become more self-confident.
What’s something Americans don’t understand about China? About being an artist in China?
Chinese culture has the characteristic of Eastern Totalitarianism. Traditional Chinese values advocate preaching and contentment, as it represses individualism and self-expression. This is how Chinese culture exerts its influence on the individual. With the merge of different cultures and art theories, Chinese contemporary art represents a new possibility and a chance to make a breakthrough, as there are more and more of Chinese art that advocates self-expression. We need artists with distinguishing personalities to make art move forward. Chinese artists have a kind of value added to their cultural value, which is to alter the perception on individualism. The artists can enlighten the masses by just bringing up their ideas and expressing themselves.
Something China doesn’t understand about America?
From the perspective of a typical Chinese citizen, America is a mysterious and distinguishing country, which is very different from European countries. When talking about America, ideas come into our mind that include Kennedy, Disney, Hollywood, the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline – things that we see from afar. To me, no matter in China or America, people are shaped by their surroundings. Leaving out its politics, and only speaking about the culture, America indeed leads contemporary art and thinking, contributing tremendously to the development of modern civilization. I think if Chinese art strives to communicate and blend into the world, it has to learn from America, learning the ways that American people perceive and manage art. China has to learn from the world if it wants to advance its art and culture, and America is a very valuable teacher.
Translated from Chinese and edited for length.