Art & Photography

Liu Bolin: Hidden in Plain View

To mark the Chinese artist’s retrospective at Galerie Paris-Beijing in Brussels, Liu Bolin explains to Eleonora Usseglio Prinsi why the background is always at the forefront of his thinking

Hiding In The City is a series of works by chameleonic artist Liu Bolin. The Chinese creative is well known within the artistic community for his ability to disguise himself within his surroundings. Bolin mixes body art with sculpture and photography through with camouflage-performances staged around the world, from Beijing to Venice and New York.

As his retrospective at Galerie Paris-Beijiing in Brussels draws to a close on 25 May, the artist talks to Eleonora Usseglio Prinsi about the manifesto of his work, and his obsession with society, and its impact on the individual.

What is the chief idea behind your work, Hiding In The City?

As an individual, in order to live my own life – my own life, not yours, or the people’s – I feel I need to fight against society. However in the meantime, I need to build it up. [I’m like a] a brick [in its wall].

At that point in my life, I was trying to do my own art – walk my own road. I was working really hard, but I got nothing in the end, not even a chance to go further down the “art road” exploring my own work. I don’t know why – I didn’t know why. But I needed an answer. I thought maybe society did something to me, and to other individuals, perhaps . But in the meantime, every individual works towards building up their society – there’s something really interesting in that point.

The thought behind the series came to me a long time ago, though not very clear at first. It wasn’t until the demolition of Suo Jia village in 2005 that I found the “gap” through which to channel this idea. Many artists’ studios were destroyed at that time [as part of the demolition programme ahead of the Beijing Olympics]. They were forced to leave there, and not many people said “No”, or questioned it.

For nearly every photograph of the series Hiding in the City, the background represents society or something like that; the body who is hidden could be any individual.

What is the process you use to create each “disappearance”?

To finish one work will take three to four hours. The painting is done by one of my assistants, and the photography is also done by my assistant. My role is for me to stand still there. Some people ask, “You’re not the one who does the painting, or the shot, how can it be your work?” But I choose which site we  use, which assistant helps to do the painting, or the shot…

Before we start work, I take a photo of me standing in front of the site.  I put my portrait onto every background digitally before real production starts in order to show my assistant the idea and tell them how to proceed.  We pay attention to every single detail, every line and color. My assistant and I communicate throughout the process, in order to get the best image we can.  I then analyse which part is most important part, which has to be finished first. I guide the colour choices so it is the same as the background. Then we start to paint. I have to paint myself in the same color as the background, and more importantly I have to make the lines connect with those of the background.

If the emphasis is on the background the, what criteria do you use to select your setting?

I choose places with stories; many people have lived or stayed there, materially or mentally… An aspect of my early work is that it explores the development of Chinese society. There are slogans that were used in the Cultural Revolution that we are still using now. [In choosing my settings] I am trying to ask, “How has our society developed? What are the problems in our society?”

A plasticising agent was found in a Chinese drink – I have a phobia of supermarket food and of New York’s streets. Filled with fashion, celebrity magazines and dazzling characters, they will become my muse. My current work explores a tangled world of anxiety and our helplessness as individuals. The settings .

You said about Hiding In The City “the environment has engulfed me”. Do you think that nowadays, the city’s enabled the people to express themselves, or that really they’ve become lost to mass society, becoming “invisible”?

I hide myself to show where I am, where you are, where every individual is… Building society, being part of the “mass” is something every individual will do, even if he doesn’t know he’s doing it, or doesn’t want to. But to wake up and to move from the background is definitely something he has to do consciously.

Of course, a lot of people speak about my work from a political perspective, which is one aspect of my message, for sure.  But I want to emphasise and to draw attention to the relationship between the grand scale of cultural development and the role of a single individual.

Liu Bolin Retrospective runs until 25th May at Rue Hotel des Monnaies 66, Brussels. For more information, visit Galerie Paris-Beijing