Liu Bolin: Colourful Obscurity

Liu Bolin, Dragon Series, 2010. Photograph in 9 panels. 46″ x 59″ (118cm x 150cm).
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 97 – Yellow River, 2011. 37″ x 47″ (95cm x 120cm). Photography on dibond and acrylic resin.
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 18 -Laid Off , 2006. Photography on dibond and acrylic resin. 26″ x 31″ (65cm x 80cm).
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 99 – Three Goddesses, 2011. Photography on dibond and acrylic resin. 46″ x 59″ (118cm x 150cm).
Liu Bolin, Mona Lisa, 2016. Archival pigment print, 78 x 3/4 x 54 1/4 inches (200 x 138 cm).
Liu Bolin, Red Hand (White Set of 8), 2008. 71″ x 20″ x 37″ (180cm x 50cm x 95cm). Fiberglass sculpture.
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Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

Vanishing Point, an exhibition of Liu Bolin’s photographs at Bel Air Fine Art in London, summons up one primeval, atavistic dread: that of the unknown figure in the darkness, watching, hidden, ready to leap out. Shandong-born Liu Bolin amps up the tension by having the unknown figure (usually himself), hiding in plain sight, chameleon-like against a backdrop of daily reality. However, closer inspection hints that not all is how it first seems. In all cases but one (one of the nine panels in his Hiding in the City – Dragon Series), Liu Bolin has his eyes closed. Now, who is hiding from whom?

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Bel Air Fine Art & the artist

Liu Bolin, Dragon Series, 2010. Photograph in 9 panels. 46″ x 59″ (118cm x 150cm).

 

The metaphors of hiding, camouflage and surveillance run in many different directions in this selection of 24 photographs. The settings are international, with photographs from Beijing, New York, London and Caracas. Liu Bolin peeps out from steam trains, warships, bricks and refuse; he is often in the midst of items left behind, discarded and abandoned, while the action takes place elsewhere. There are no photographs of him lurking within a fast-moving environment or faced with exaggerated prosperity, such as at Google’s headquarters, or at a stock exchange or Rolls Royce dealership. He always appears inert, present and yet powerless to intervene. His pose is still and downcast, belying the action-orientation of his muscular form and military clothing. He is waiting, and yet not watchful. The large scale of the photographs seems to invite the viewer to take over from this impotent figure, to enter the scene and take part. But what is expected of us?

Liu Bolin doesn’t make the answer easy. He unsettles the viewer by reframing his societal critique, making the satire of his photographs a moving target. There are themes, but the complete package of his vision for an ideal society remains out of reach. Many photographs appear to promote the liberal or political left, but not all. As the International Monetary Fund forecasts inflation in Venezuela to hit 1 million per cent by the end of the year, his Hiding in Venezuela – Tropical Fruits, must be seen as an indictment of the failure of a socialist government to provide plenty for its people. He has a clear interest in the environment, as evidenced by the subtle colour palette of  Hiding in the City No. 97 – Yellow River. Wearing his trademark military jacket, the artist emerges as if after a baptism in the waters of China’s most historic commercial artery a dripping, forlorn figure in white, grey and brown. It is clear that he has a pre-occupation with members of society left behind by Capitalism / Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Freshly redundant factory workers are centre stage in Hiding in the City No. 18 – Laid Off, sidelined, left behind, forgotten in a march to the future.

 

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 97 – Yellow River, 2011. 37″ x 47″ (95cm x 120cm). Photography on dibond and acrylic resin.
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 18 -Laid Off , 2006. Photography on dibond and acrylic resin. 26″ x 31″ (65cm x 80cm).

 

Liu Bolin appears as a silent, immobile, inactive figure in each painting. His unobtrusiveness suggests that he is sceptical of the individual’s power; he is pushing instead for societal systems to be overhauled. One poignant work underlines this more than most: in Notes, a group of homeless people (eyes wide open) are assembled, dressed in a pattern of Queen’s-head-on-a-banknote. Liu Bolin seems to be observing that money has broken up families and corrupted us all, so that individuals are cast adrift, homeless and rootless; ironically, when we do look at homeless people, money is the only solution we can think of.

Many of these themes and concerns are familiar ones, shared by many contemporary artists. But, how do Liu Bolin’s swipes at the capitalist society fit with his corporate promotions for Ruinart and Moncler? Is there any contradiction in simultaneously embracing and admonishing the commercial players in our capitalist world? The artist, and his philosophy, remains something of an enigma. The wise-cracking TED-talking showman who camouflages himself, continually in front of us and yet invisible, opening our eyes while shutting his.

Visitors to the lower ground floor of Bel Air’s gallery in New Bond Street (which only opened a few months ago) will admire the technical wizardry of it all. Photographs such as Hiding in the City No. 99 – Three Goddesses require some hunting before the artist emerges at all. In others, such as Hiding in Venezuela – Tropical Fruits, the mesmerizing riot of colour and the sheer detail-orientation involved in this (studio-created) supermarket shot are worth a visit in their own right. Sometimes, the answer lies not in the political solution, but in the artistic execution. On this basis, this global journey into colourful obscurity should not be missed.

Cobo Social discussed the themes of his work with Liu Bolin in this exclusive interview.

 

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City No. 99 – Three Goddesses, 2011. Photography on dibond and acrylic resin. 46″ x 59″ (118cm x 150cm).

 

What does it mean to you, to have your first solo show in London?

I had a solo exhibition at Saatchi in London last September as part of the start fair. The time was short, but for a very professional and great gallery, it had some special meaning to me. I hold strong interest for the English art system, and also I love Tate modern. This exhibition possibly means a different beginning to me.

 

In your photographs, you hide and disappear. Do you think that people in today’s society should try to disappear, or try not to disappear?

In the city camouflage series, I doodled on the body, and photographed the process of drawing on a human body. I tried to excavate the seen and unseen part of society and turn them into part of my works. Therefore, it’s important to express the meaning of society in my work, and the meaning of civilization created by humans and human connections to provoke thoughts in the viewers.

 

You wear military jackets in your photographs. Does this type of clothing give you a more aggressive, confrontational feeling?

Right from the beginning of the city camouflage project, I put on makeup like what a sniper does, paint my body, face and hands with the same colour as the environment. By doing it, I am better protected, so that I can look at the world with a more sober understanding. This thought was clear to me from the start. On the other hand, wearing a military jacket has a realistic aspect, it increases our sense of emergency, but also provides a defense mechanism to reality.

 

Your Hacker series in 2015 engaged with the internet: you took existing images from the internet, edited them, and re-uploaded them. Do you see the internet as a forum to present art, or a kind of enemy to art and to the way we should live our lives?

As an artist, I am more sensitive to the real world. That’s a standard I place for my self. The Hackers series came from my judgement about the development of human civilization. Humans have gone through the commodity society, brand society, commercial society, consumer society, internet society and today’s cellphone society. Therefore, using the internet and cellphones as the starting point to approach the consideration of modern problems is right. That’s also a sign of artistic progress. I will keep trying new things, because we are in a new stage now. The speed and frequency of how we acquire and exchange information today needs to be understood with modern thinking.

 

Liu Bolin, Mona Lisa, 2016. Archival pigment print, 78 x 3/4 x 54 1/4 inches (200 x 138 cm).

 

You have collaborated with other artists and with organizations to create artwork. Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?

I may collaborate with Italian artist Morandi in the future. Even though he has already passed away, I really love his works, and I may create something interacting with his works. Except traditional art pieces, there may be other possibilities. I want to do something internet- related. That’s the direction I want to go in, and I am very interested in the theme.

 

You have discussed disappearance as a means of expressing your anxiety for humanity. What makes you most anxious about today’s world?

Art is used to discuss humanity, human fate and the spirituality of our generation, what kind of struggles we face, where our souls will go. In my works, disappearance is a recurring theme, also the shattering of civilization. I want to use my work to reflect on them.

 

Is there any difference in how people perceive your work in China, versus how they see it in other countries?

My creations in china and outside are pretty much the same, because they are all sort of externalizations of my strong inner self. The method may be a bit different. The Chinese ones focus more on reality, including current social issues. The foreign ones also focus on cultural differences and a kind of salute to civilization. The general direction is the same. I have also photographed the Great Wall and Forbidden City in china. Civilization as a theme can be found in most of my works.

 

Liu Bolin, Red Hand (White Set of 8), 2008. 71″ x 20″ x 37″ (180cm x 50cm x 95cm). Fiberglass sculpture.

 

You began your career as a sculptor. Can we expect to see more of your sculptures in the future?

From undergraduate to masters, and from city camouflage series to sculptures, all I am doing is expressing myself. I invest most of my time in making sculptures and installations nowadays. If there’s a chance, I will present myself with more completeness in the future.

 

 

Thank you!

 

 

About the Artist

Liu Bolin was born in 1973 in Shandong, China and studied at the at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Seeking out global locations to stage his performative installations, Bolin became an internationally recognized artist and his work has been displayed in numerous museums and galleries including The Louvre. In 2013, he delivered a TED talk about the social and political, issues his artwork aims to explore, which received over one million views. In 2016, he collaborated with renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz for Moncler’s Spring/Summer campaign shot in Iceland. More recently, Liu Bolin paired up with Ruinart for Art Basel in 2018, creating eight works specifically for that corporate collaboration.

 

 


 

Nicholas Stephens is from London and has lived in Hong Kong for the last nine years, where he works for a leading Hong Kong gallery, specializing in contemporary ink. His articles on diverse aspects of the Hong Kong arts scene have been published in “Art Hong Kong”. A graduate in Modern Languages (European ones unfortunately!), Nicholas has authored translations of novels and plays by writers including Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

 

 
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