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Interview with The Invisible Man: Liu Bolin

Society, contradictory relationships between humans and civilizations are one of the main themes in Liu Bolin artworks

Liu Bolin is an artist from Shandong, well-known for his artistic works in performance, photography, and social activism. He received his BA from Shandong College of Arts in 1995, and his MA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2001. Liu’s most famous series, Hiding in the City, investigates the complex relationship between the individual and society by disappearing into environments, he represents the forgotten men of the growing economic system, where power struggles reign. Both Liu Bolin’s photos and sculptures have been displayed in numerous museums and institutions around the world, in solo exhibitions as well featured in group exhibitions too. He has collaborated with Kenny Scharf, JR, Jon Bon Jovi, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Fernando Botero, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Annie Leibovitz. In 2015, Liu was commissioned by the United Nations-backed campaign The Global Goals to create an image that conveyed 17 goals – including ending poverty, encouraging sustainable development, and fighting inequality and injustice – where he hid within 193 flags of the world. Liu Bolin currently resides and works in Beijing, China.

Cover photo: Nine Dragon Series (Photographs /2010) © Liu Bolin

Official website | Facebook | Twitter | Interview with Liu Bolin in Chinese

Your most renowned works are from the “Hiding in the City” series, which you began in response to the Beijing artists’ village demolition. Can you tell us about this period? What did it mean for your artist’s path?

Thanks to the attention of the upcoming Olympic Games of 2008, in 2005, Chinese contemporary art managed to attract a lot of consideration by becoming a reflection of China. The Suojiacun International Art Camp came into being under this background. By 2004, more than 140 Chinese and foreign artists were working there, and it was known as the largest international art camp in Asia at that time. However, from the beginning of 2005, the art district was continuously suspended for illegal construction, until it was razed on November 16, 2005. The “Hiding in the City” series was completed the day after it was demolished in front of the ruins of the studio in the art district, questioning the whole event with the artist’s disappearance, and using this piece to call society to pay attention to the artist’s living condition. I opened up my path in the arts since then, and at the beginning of my creation, I have strengthened my attitude towards social questioning and reflection. It created a new starting point for my artistic path. At the same time, I also reinforced the idea of using the body to participate and summarizing and reminding events, and paying attention to the common topics of mankind.

Nicknamed the Invisible Man, due for painting himself to blend into a background, Liu constantly tries to strengthen and deepen his artistic language. He continuously challenging himself.

What were the biggest challenges during that period? Have you faced some unexpected moments making your artwork projects?

The main challenge at the beginning of my creative process was to identify the best method to record the process of the participation of the whole body within the artwork. At first, I used the video and time-lapse photography method to record the scene, but later, I finally decided to use freeze motion photography to record and realize it. What’s more, I was learning sculpture before, and I was not good at photography techniques. I had to learn how to take photos correctly while doing work. I paid a lot of tuition during the whole process.

In 2017, Liu was a keynote speaker at the New York Times “Art for Tomorrow 2017” conference, stressing the importance of the artist’s role to convey environmental issues in their works.  

Have you faced some unexpected moments making your artwork projects?

What impressed me most was that there were two problems when shooting the Bird’s Nest work. One was because the light meter was not working. After all, the temperature was too low in winter, and there was no way to call and ask nearby friends what aperture should be used; second, after the final shooting was completed because the distance between people and the bird’s nest in the background was too far away, the focal length of the Bird’s Nest was not clear enough, so my only option was to only go to the spot to re-shoot on the third day.

Through his artworks of human sculpture, performance art, and photography he shares his thinking towards human beings, helping to consider the real limitations of human beings. 

I read that at your beginning in the fields of art you started studying sculpture. What made you want to express yourself with a different art medium? Did your sculpture knowledge help you to be more creative and self-confident in your new art projects?

I studied sculpture at the university and graduated, but I felt and I found that when I expressed my real feelings, the sculpture medium was very weak. That’s why I decided to use my body as a canvas, to express myself directly and with more strength. However, all the knowledge learned in the assimilation process of sculpture has become the base for the shooting of urban camouflage works. For example, in the selection of background in the work of laid-off workers, the choice of six laid-off workers in “Laid Off 706” comes from the study of the uniqueness of materials in sculpture. For different cultural backgrounds, shooting the restoration and expression of events also follows the rational use of the knowledge of art history learning.

Because of life, living continues, images and technology also continue, so one is unable to avoid the relationship between life and the environment.” – Liu Bolin

How do you feel about reviewing your work-related for that period and seeing the huge change in Beijing nowadays? How much has art changed in China since then?

Chinese contemporary art has indeed flourished with the success of the Beijing Olympics. With the success of the Dashanzi Art Festival in 2003, Chinese contemporary art has gradually been recognized by the world in the following years. As a contemporary Chinese artist, I’m very lucky to live in this era. Before this period, a group of artists like us who have no official positions would be considered as migrant workers, without formal jobs, living together with taxi drivers and other workers in rural areas. But since Chinese contemporary art has been paid attention to, the creativity and status of artists have also been greatly improved. The artist received widespread respect.

What was the most difficult project you have done? Considering also the planning aspect, how long did it take for you?

In 2006, I did the work 《下岗706》 about the laid-off workers in 798 Art District. I spent half a month to find six people who worked and lived in this space and were finally laid off and to let them understand my work, and finally participate in my work.

They were all laid off in the 1990s. Most of these people were in their 50s and 60s. They had been worn out of their working years. They were old, with aged knowledge, and could not find new jobs. They were treated differently, and they have to provide for their elderly parents and their children to study. A family of three lives in a rent house of 20 square meters and cannot afford to buy a house.” – Liu Bolin

There is a piece of your artwork you are most attached to or particularly connected to?

In 2015 I launched the Hacker series, which I am currently very satisfied with. I hired real hackers to hack ten European government websites, download photos from the original site, hid them in them, and then put them back online so that the audience could see my work on the web pages.

You create art performances around the world such as “Hiding in New York”, “Fade in Italy” etc. Did you find any difference in working abroad compared to China?

There is no fundamental difference, I have been shooting around the world for more than a decade, with the strong support of local partners. So it’s all going well. At the Colosseum in Rome, for example, it took five years for a local co-gallery to get permission to shoot.

His latest series of works “Art Hacker” marks his shift towards the virtual world, exploring new territory through his artistic investigation of the internet and digital age. Through his new artworks, he connects the problem in real life with the virtual world, and continuously engage in a discussion. 

What keep you inspired and motivated? Do you have places (cities, monuments, etc…) where you would like to create new artworks?

The dream of artists and the courage to challenge ourselves are the source of my strength. I’m currently planning a new series of hackers. Declaring war on the virtual world is what our generation of artists must do.

Can you share with us any meaningful story behind your art project?

In September 2015, I shot a work about illegal immigrants from Africa in Sicily, Italy. During the shooting process, I had a deeper understanding of their life and the reason why they came to Italy, so in the extra time, I started to work on THE FUTURE series. The words “future” were written on everyone’s body, which was not only a prayer for their fate but also a blessing. The works are not only works of art, but also vivid souls and lives. I try to carry it with my work.

Do you think social media and new technologies are influencing art and the audience? Do they help art and artist to get closer to the audience, or there are new kinds of layers and filters? What is your relationship with the new art community? Does this affect your way of creating new work?

We, humans, are undergoing a huge transformation that we have not yet realized. A new model of life is taking shape, represented by web and virtual technology-based mobile clients. Humans are being enslaved by invisible big data and algorithms. All human behavior is served and monitored as data. Sensitive artists are making use of this technology and thinking to make new media works. At last year’s Venice Biennale, artist Zheng Shuli (Shu Lea Cheang) of Taiwan Pavilion made her own judgment based on face recognition technology. Art of any era is a combination of technology with the human thinking and worries of humans at that time.

The public is aware of the production of new art, just as we still don’t understand abstract art, but abstract art for the history of art has become classical. I appreciate the emergence of new artistic styles, especially the works of art that combine new network technology and electronic computer software. I really want to integrate myself into a new field where only we can explain our works.

His work is included in highly prestigious individual, corporate, foundation, and museum collections worldwide.

Photos Courtesy of Liu Bolin and Liu Bolin Art Studio
Special thanks to Qin Han

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Interview with The invisible man: Liu Bolin, 刘勃麟 [Chinese]

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