Liu Bolin disappears in plain sight
in his Theater of Appearances at the Musée de l’Elysée
Liu Bolin, Unify the Thought to Promote Education More, from the series “Hiding in the City”, 2007 © Liu Bolin / Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing
“Some would say that I disappeared into the landscape;
personally, I would say that the environment swallowed me up”
– Liu Bolin
It’s November 2005 and an artists enclave in Beijing’s Suo Jia Cun district is razed to the ground by the government. One of the buildings destroyed in the act is the studio belonging to Liu Bolin, Chinese sculptor, performer and photographer. What was a ruinous mark of political contempt became a watershed moment in Bolin’s artistic rationale. His retaliation was to disappear, using his art to respond to his encounters and a gesture which marked the beginning of his ubiquitous camouflage series of works.
For the first time in Switzerland, the Musée de l’Elysée presents a retrospective of Bolin’s work. Featuring key pieces from 2005 to 2017, ‘The Theater of Appearances’ brings together over fifty monumental photographs and sculptures documenting the themes addressed by the artist over his career. The Chinese government’s political and economic strategies, ancestral traditions and religious and cultural symbols. Or individual and collective acts of resistance, the transformation of the urban environment, ecological damage and a hyper-consumerist society are all given high visibility. Bolin’s creations and ability to blend into the background have become a powerful mode of social commentary and with this exhibition, the Elysée continues its mandate to participate in societal debates that redefine both how we view photography and the role of photographers today.
Liu Bolin, The Laid off Workers, from the series “Hiding in the City”, 2006 © Liu Bolin / Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing
The ‘Hiding in the City’ series began in 2005 with a self-portrait of Bolin, immobile, fragile and standing straight, eyes closed, covered in paint, melting into the rubble of his former studio. Since then, his work has progressed from painting only himself into photographic performances involving a sizeable team. It’s enabled him to scale up over the past few years as more people participate in his projects. “By getting more people involved, my work becomes more meaningful” states Bolin. “I try my best to convey the meaning of being invisible. At the same time, I’ve been looking for ways to challenge my methods”. This is evident in some of the works on show in Lausanne, where it’s not only his dedicated production team making it happen but also the many real individuals posing in concealed, dignified protest. The inhabitants of a village in Shandong province stand in wheat fields contaminated by industrial chemicals, made sick by their environment; laid-off workers line up in front of the wall of their former factory where above them an inscription reads: ‘The Communist Party is the force of progress’. These are lives camouflaged within the context of their own history and the artist becomes their stealth story-teller.
Dubbed the Chameleon Man, Bolin uses a facial mask to protect his skin from the acrylic paint applied by painting assistants during the blending process. Great care is taken to match the shapes of the background and colour palette used in the painting. Often standing immobile for several hours, the images, set against walls, monuments, iconic or daily landscapes are fixed by photographs, unedited, unmanipulated, telling the story of life’s struggles as they are.Technology has helped the artist, especially with his large panoramic photographs which are stitched together by computer. The resulting works, capturing the act of disappearance are his remarkable way of conveying a message or highlighting an issue.
Part of Bolin’s philosophical thinking centres on the harmony between man and nature and many of the works are distressingly pertinent. Bolin alludes to the rapid urbanisation seen in China where buildings pop up at an alarming rate. With it, the vast amount of waste materials disposed of by humans pollute the environment. Many of his works are concentrated in China although there have been other artistic projects – Bolin has been known to disappear into Monet’s Waterlilies, Pollocks, Picassos and Van Goghs, even into a rack of Austrian magazines – readers can see a country’s wars, leaders, politics and scandals just from a front cover – or creating original art pieces live during an event. And there was the recent 2017 collaboration with French artist JR at the Louvre. But justifiably it’s the all too personal events closer to home which are given priority in this show.
As Bolin immerses himself in his paintings, we are drawn in to wonder what it is we are seeing, this imperceptible presence acting as an all-way mirror for the viewer. The backgrounds chosen by Bolin are deliberate. The national flag, propaganda slogans, icons and symbols of Chinese culture, the aisle of a fruit and vegetable market or myriad brands of plastic bottled waters. China’s endangered panda is portrayed as a cheap, cartoon-cute cuddly toy.
What remains the same throughout is Bolin’s conviction to provoke people to look, think, consider the fall-out. Where some images are arguably fun to look at, others are equally alarming and this is where Bolin succeeds. Mobile phones, drinks cans, and soft toys may appeal to the younger set, other destructive objects – the diggers, obstacles, ruins, toxic rivers and lost or misplaced heritage call yearningly to hindsight and common-sense rhetoric. Saying to us, ‘it’s your world’, his oeuvre captures the zeitgeist of our modernising, industrialising times and its human and environmental implications. Now who’s for a game of hide and seek?
Liu Bolin, Road Block, from the series “Hiding in the City”, 2007 © Liu Bolin / Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing
Liu Bolin, Panda, from the series “Hiding in the City”, 2011 © Liu Bolin / Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing
Liu Bolin, Your World, from the series “Hiding in the City”, 2014 © Liu Bolin / Courtesy Galerie Paris-Beijing
Vues de l’exposition Liu Bolin – The Theater of Appearances,
Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne 2018 © oneARTlover
Liu Bolin – The Theater of Appearances
Musée de l’Elysée
Until 27 January 2019
Toute reproduction interdite
© www.arteez.ch 2018