by Hannah Chin
More passionately known as "The Invisible Man", we have the privilege to find out more from Liu Bolin about the inspiration and meaning behind his works.
Have you always felt strongly towards sociopolitical issues? When did it start?
My “Hiding in the City” series of works began in 2005, but the works relating to the slogans made up of big Chinese characters in the background started in 2006. In my work, I stealthily hide within the publicity slogans - it is my innate behaviour as a living body, used in my art to express my instinctive reaction. Just like our breath, the air inhalation is not something I can see and react to, therefore the creation of my work is truly an expression of my inner-feelings, and not about politics which I did not think of.
You must hold great sentiments towards the Chinese Beijing artist village Suo Jia Cun (destroyed by the government in 2005) where you worked from. How long were you there for, any unforgettable memories or particularly memorable works created during your time there?
The Beijing International Art Camp - Suo Jia Cun began at the end of 2004, and it was known as one of the largest gathering places for artists in Asia, with more than 140 artists working there. While I settled in slightly later in May 2005 and was there for about half a year or so, the memory I had was especially unforgettable. Everyone had their own artistic dreams, a studio they called their own, and enjoyed creating their own works of art. When I first arrived, I visited every studio to understand the working condition of each artist, and the feeling is particularly wonderful - like a carefree life in paradise, and that kind of happiness is the most memorable to date.
What about your earlier works (before 2005), are they also touching on sociopolitical issues and your commentary relating to the global social and economic changes?
I studied sculpture during my undergraduate and graduate years, which has no direct relation to using the body in art. However, it also belongs to the art industry, and the variation in art form is not determined by the skills one has mastered. In 1999 when I was in graduate school, I had a strong interest in using the body as a medium to express my thoughts. Then the 911 incident that happened in 2001 struck me greatly, and having witnessed that period in history, I began to creatively use the body in my art. As an artist, it is essential to have your visions and thoughts towards the society expressed through your artwork. Although I did not have any special understanding of social and human development upon graduating, my increased travels enabled me to face the world with greater exposure and my vision gradually widened. The content of my works became richer, and along with my works I grew greatly as a person. Thus, the topics touching on the problems that arise from the global social changes also continue to gradually mature thereafter.
What are some of the emotions and thoughts you have when conceptualizing and creating a work?
The main aim of my work is to express the logic behind the disappearance of the body into the background, and why people disappear into the selected background. So, when I conceive a piece of artwork, I place great emphasis on the relationship and I carefully choose the background - not like any simple game. The reason behind hiding in the selected background is a very important factor in every piece of my work. Therefore, at the time of selection, I will present as much as possible my thoughts towards the society, as well as the contradictory relationships between humans and the civilizations created.
Do you see your work evolving beyond photography? If so, in what way?
My work is not just photography, because photography is only a way of recording. For example, the whole process of using video to record can be very dull. Due to the long duration, the audience is unable to comprehend while viewing the work - because the process is not beautiful, and it is also not about communicating how to draw faster and better. Moreover, in the process I keep moving to overcome my physical strength, therefore in Chinese saying, it is more appropriate to call my work “posed photography”. I pose, and you photograph. The result is more important, and because I use the body as a very basic medium of expression, it is not simple photography. Many people have asked which category is my work more inclined to after all? Human sculpture, performance art or photography? I also have not figured out what it is, but I think this method can at least allow people to feel my responsible thinking towards human beings, which is enough.
Could one also view your work as encouraging adaptability to circumstances?
The art of thinking is to remove the limitations of human beings; including our creation of civilization and the images and tools used to create the civilization, to think about the real limitations of human beings. Because of life, living continues, images and technology also continue, so one is unable to avoid the relationship between life and the environment. Whether to encourage people to adapt to the environment is not the main consideration in my work. When I present the current helpless situation of people, allowing audience to see my expression of helplessness or the real sense of urgency, the very feeling that is expressed already achieved its artistic purpose. Thus, to incite adaptability in people is not a problem to be solved.
Which work(s) do you feel most attached to, and deem to be the best representation of your body of work?
It has been 12 years since I started the series of “Hiding in the City” in 2005. During this period, I constantly try to strengthen and deepen my career and artistic language, continuously challenging myself in the iconic works I have at different stages. For instance, through one work I think about another work, thus opening a new field and making the work symbolic. I like work that has a turning point, but I also like the other works very much; only that they do not have a turning point that’s all.
You stood for almost 10 hours for the creation of the piece "The Future". Can you elaborate on this experience?
On September 25, 2015, the United Nations 193 member states’ summit was held in New York, primarily to consider the future of the United Nations sustainable development goals. They found me, and allowing me to use my hiding technique I created this work. Hidden in a background made up of flags of the 193 countries and the small logos of the 17 development goals at the summit. The 17 sustainable development goals are no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the goals. I place the small logos of these 17 goals and the flags together, representing a beautiful yearning for the future of mankind. In my art, it partially bears the beautiful wishes and discussions for the future of mankind. And apart from the discussion of reality, I feel that having a beautiful goal for the future is also one of the purposes of art. When designing the background combining the flags and the 17 logos, because the flags have relatively simple solid colours - red, green, yellow and blue are all commonly used colours, I did a lot of designs and ultimately it took a lot of effort to have the two letter “UN” hidden in the background. At the same time, I was also raising the English sign of “Future” in my hands, and hiding it in the background too. This is the first time I tried hiding myself together with the big characters in my work. Throughout the whole process, using my hands to raise the sign made my arms ache very much, and it was a high intensity workout for my deltoid muscle. My arms were already numb by the time this work was completed, so this experience was particularly unforgettable.
The latest series of works "Art Hacker" (Solo Show at Klein Sun Gallery in December 2016), marks your shift towards the virtual world, exploring this new territory artistically through Post-Internet Art. Can you tell us more, about your investigation of the internet and digital age, and the future?
As mentioned, art should have a blessing and wish for the future. In April 2015, I had my first Art Hacker exhibition at the MD Gallery (Magda Danysz Gallery) in Shanghai. It was about me hiding in the pictures taken of about 10 different levels of government websites in Europe, and trying it put it back online. Because I think that China’s experience in this area has slowly come to the forefront of the world. Mankind has passed the industrial era, went through war, and experienced a scavenging consumer society. The structure of the whole world, through the network society to the intelligent era, just like Google is already saying that people will obtain eternal life – how everyone is slowly becoming immortal, leading a completely different way of life through mobile software. The Hacker itself is a very important symbol of our time, such as services the internet and smartphone software bring us, it has really changed our lives and even our future direction. When I use my work to explore our future, I discovered that we are not only in war with real life; like the refugee crisis, the Hainan oil rig dispute, and the currency war, war in the virtual world of the Internet has also started. The theme of my first exhibition is called the war between images, because the hiding between network management, as well as the exchanges and confrontation with the network police, have all become possibilities in art discussion. To be in contact with reality, the reality of technology and the image generated by such technology, I use the mobile phone to have a live broadcast of China’s haze. I constantly connect the problem in real life with the virtual world, and continuously engage in a discussion. This is what artists of our time must do, and to pave the way for the next generation of artists. Because the artworks of every era can symbolize this era, I do not know what my work is but I try to use my work to the greatest extent to reflect and think about our real problems.
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