Liu Bolin. Illusion and Reality
by Beatrice Benedetti
Art is mimesis, wrote Aristotle.
And if art imitates reality, it cannot lie, for directly aims at pleasure and knowledge. Sophistry aside, if there must be deception, it is a deception that inspires.
Miles - and millennia - away, the broadside against the value of art is once again reappearing. And it reverberates in the creative zeal of China, thanks to an artist who may know little more than the names of the fathers of Western philosophy.
On closer examination, though, the chameleon-like portraits of Liu Bolin (Shandong, 1973), which are the outcome of precision body painting and plays on perspective, lead almost straight back to the School of Athens. Here art unequivocally imitates life, and universal truths (un)dress their confusion with reality.
Beatrice Benedetti: Let's start from two of your most famous photographs - the ones in the "Hiding in the City" series, where the world gobbles up men and women, and you too, eroding their living space. Might it be that art is the only escape from all these impositions?
Liu Bolin: The photos that I devised for the first time three years ago [when Suojia, the village of artists where Liu Bolin lived, was razed to the ground - Ed.] are open to a dual critical interpretation. On the one hand, it is the modern world that deprives us of our physical space. But it is also true that the subject of my photographs is normally myself. And indeed I myself choose to appear in that particular context, immersing myself within it.
B.B.: You mean to say that it's not a matter of inevitably submitting to the alienating nature of progress?
L.B.: Exactly. If that were the case, I'd have decided to paint myself completely white, let's say, or dye myself a colour that contrasts with the background. Whereas, by simulating the mimicry of animals, I aim to give an idea of belonging to the context I was born in, and that is what distinguishes me.
B.B.: The milieu powerfully connotes the man. In Europe, the writers of Naturalism and Verism told us this once and for all. The collateral effect comes when the environment prevents the development of independent thought. You yourself denounce the extreme case of communist totalitarianism that has made such a mark on Chinese history, and you refer to your performances as "social sculptures" - living sculptures with a social content.
L.B.: Sure. But I've decided to live within my world, letting myself be protected by it, and indulging it. It's easier that way, if you will.
B.B.: But in China there are some dissident artists, like your friends the Gao Brothers, who believe it's necessary to go against the tide in order to escape certain forms of oppression, avoiding submission.
L.B.: I think differently from them. I don't want to go against the authority of the government. There wouldn't be much point, by the way. Power is in the hands of those who command. I don't think it's that necessary to be "against" in order to change things.
B.B.: But what would you say about sculptures like your bronze "Fist" (2006), which symbolises oppressive power, or "Red Hand" (2006), in which a procession of men in uniform cover each others' eyes with red hands, the colour of the party as well as that of violence?
L.B.: Red is the colour of China itself. I started out as a sculptor [at the school of Sui Jianguo - Ed.] before I became a photographer and performer. Those works are fundamental, and they stand out clearly in District 798 in Beijing. It's true - the fist, in all the variants I've made of it, symbolises the power of oppression: what comes from above and crushes those who are below it.
B.B.: Precisely. An unequivocal message.
L.B.: Yes, the communication is instant. I received confirmation of this one day, as I was going past my bronze sculpture in 798. I noticed an old man having himself photographed by his wife as he lay underneath the fist. I realised that I hadn't been misunderstood - the message was clear. In 2006 I did a performance for the opening of a Chinese gallery with men and women lying down underneath a red fist (Red Hand, 2006).
B.B.: The police can't have taken it too well.
L.B.: Actually, I've never had any problem of censorship with my works.
B.B.: Perhaps because your works have a poetic quality about them that somehow makes the message less forceful?
L.B.: Maybe. In Sunflowers (2008), I represented the power of the superstructure that prevents independent thinking. The sunflower always turns towards a sun that comes from above and that gives it nourishment. In Sunflower on the Table (2008), the sunflowers are born like malformed individuals sitting on a Ming-dynasty chair. An unmistakable symbol of China.
B.B.: "Leaves on the Man"(2008) marks the midway point in this transformation.
L.B.: Yes. More than a man, in this sculpture I've portrayed a baby, on whom the pressure from above comes when it is still a foetus, and it receives nourishment from vessels, from Mother Earth. Burning man 2 (2007) actually represents a mother holding her child in her arms, and she is already shaping it and forging its thoughts.
B.B.: I see. You've got clear ideas, using "soft" forms of denunciation that escape control by the regime.
L.B.: Yes, but some can see through this. The publisher of my monographic catalogue didn't want to publish the photos in which I'm shown in the place of the effigy of Mao in Tiananmen Square.
B.B.: Perhaps that's a good thing - at least you weren't compromised. Then you printed the photo for "Hide and Seek", your first solo in Italy, didn't you?
L.B.: Yes. It's also in France.
B.B.: But it was Italy that inspired a truly original work.
L.B.: Quite right. I was in Verona for three weeks prior to the Boxart Gallery exhibition and I decided to concentrate on the artistic heritage that is at the heart of Italian culture and that is carefully preserved. In China, on the other hand, things are just swept away and replaced. And not just by government imposition, which simply needs a signature to demolish a building forever. It's the common folk who want change, even at the cost of destroying what they have.
B.B.: So far it's been a success, when you look at the economic revival it has led to.
L.B.: Yes, we'll see. After all, I'm an artist. Galleries have the task of studying market trends. The artist's task is to go one step further - always - with their own work. For the rest, I just want a dignified life: a normal family and what I need to live on.
Seeing with the Body
Zones of freedom?
Francesca Tarocco, Shanghai 12nd November 2008
Like the skyline of its cities, China’s artscape changes very quickly. But when exactly did the expressive strategies that dominate today’s contemporary Chinese art scenes first emerge and what where their key characteristics then and now?
The status of first experimental art exhibition in China is conventionally assigned to an exhibition organized on September 27, 1979 by the “Stars Group” in a small park on the east side of China National Art Museum. The initiators were artists Huang Rui and Ma Desheng and the participants included the now famous curator Li Xianting and conceptual artist and architect Ai Weiwei, still active today, aswell as the celebrated poets Bei Dao and Mang Ke. It was a spontaneous action.
There were no sponsors and no sales. The works exhibited were chosen because of their originality and involved no officially sanctioned judgment and no political propaganda. Unsurprisingly, the show was banned on September 29. Perhaps ironically, this is only the first of many shows that provide background to one of the favourite western readings of the experimental Chinese art scene, one that sees visual artists engage in a constant battle against supposedly repressive authorities. This is not to say that there exists no censorship or state intervention in matters artistic in China. And yet, things were then and still are much more complex.
A new period in the history of experimental art exhibitions started in the early 1990s, when the shift from a critical collective movement to more individual experiments initially took place. The latter are not limited to artistic form and medium, but are also concerned with modes of display and presentation. Instead of pursuing social revolution and change, curators and artists have become increasingly more interested in originating and maintaining structures that guarantee regular exhibitions of experimental art, as well as reducing interference from the authorities.
Between 1997 and 2002 the contemporary art scene developed differently in various parts of China. In the capital, artists experimenting with contemporary styles not supported by the art academies were fairly isolated from political and economic power. This allowed them to explore with relative freedom. In Shanghai and in Guangdong province, on the other hand, contemporary artists sought some form of commercial backing. Inland centres of contemporary art, such as the art academy in Sichuan, always had close links with official art.
Isolation motivated many unofficial artists in Beijing to organize loose and informal networks and to relocate to areas away from the city centre. While the first officially-endorsed art biennale took place in Shanghai in 2000, Beijing had to wait until 2002 for its first sizeable exhibition with official governmental approval. In the meantime, the link between artists and the media strengthened. In 1997, for example, a Beijing graffiti artist fearing arrest sought progressive art reporters to support his claim that his was art and not sabotage, which they did. And, today, graffiti, still a contested area in China and many European countries, has been appropriated by twenty-something Chinese, while established artists, including Liu Bolin, reference it in their work.
Because of the influence of very diverse forces, including an over-heated art market compounded with an under-resourced scene of non-commercially-oriented artistic production, the occasional governmental intrusion, foreign intervention, political issues, critical and philosophical arguments, and several local, regional and international art movements and trends, China’s art communities are in a constant state of flux.
Thus, the ever-growing, ever-changing, ultra modern Beijing keeps moving its boundaries to allow its thriving art community enough space to expand. And in recent years, the metropolis has seen numerous art villages emerge and disappear, a constant rise of communes, vast studio complexes, art gallery districts, educational establishments and museums.
The impending destruction of one such artistic community, Suojia Village on the north-east side of Beijing, then home to some one hundred contemporary art studios and galleries, was the occasion that inspired the birth of Liu Bolin’s now famous series “Hiding in the City”.
Liu Bolin: Seeing with the body
"... Using the eyes is by no means an act detached from the rest of the body. Seeing and being "moved," gesturing and making visual images, are mutually implicated aesthetic—and sensual—practices."
Carrie J. Noland, 2004
"Hide and Seek" is a two-part exhibition that focuses on two separate but connected bodies of work. The first one originated in Beijing and reflects the artist’s experiences of his own social space, as well as his preoccupation with the brutal, sometimes absurd, process of urbanization of contemporary China. By contrast, the new set of works is staged in Verona, one of Italy’s most beautiful citès d’art, where Liu took up an artist’s residency with Boxart. Here, the artist explores Italy’s attitude towards its cultural heritage and the place of human and architectural memory in the landscape.
Liu Bolin’s chosen backgrounds, whether iconic monuments or ordinary walls, architectures, road signs, political slogans, phone boxes, are signifiers. Their signified remains open. And it is precisely this openness that allows the action of standing in front of them, “hiding” in them, to be read as a gesture of dialogue between historical memory and personal experience.
The series of performance photography Hiding in the City is Liu Bolin’s best-known work. By painstakingly painting his own and others’ bodies to seemingly fuse with and disappear into a variety of ordinary urban Chinese spaces, objects, and architectures, the artist explores the ways in which the places in which we live shape our identities. Working across disciplines, including painting, photography, sculpture, and performance, Liu Bolin is concerned with the interstices between freedom and control, expression and silence, the individual and the communal, presence and invisibility.
Digitally manipulated images have certainly become a widespread cultural phenomenon in our media age, as ubiquitous as industrially manufactured materials and objects. And yet, Liu Bolin’s photography work, reminiscent of Qiu Zhijie's Tatoo series (1994-2000) and of Zhang Huan's Family Tree series (2000), are not the product of manipulation of a digital image. Instead, they display a skilful use of painting together with a sculptor’s sense of space and the human body within it.
Born in 1973 in the northern province of Shandong, Liu Bolin trained at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, a student of the renowned artist Sui Jianguo, who mentored him at the beginning of his career. Liu belongs to the generation that came of age in the early 1990s, when China emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution and was beginning to enjoy rapid economic growth and relative political stability. At the same time, the refashioning of society in a capitalist guise left many politically disenchanted and intellectually confused.
The poignant images created by the sculptor/painter/photographer invite viewers to reconsider spaces and places that are strikingly familiar, no matter if from daily encounter with them, or from exposure to cinema and television. The serial dimension of Liu Bolin’s actions of camouflage – which are now not limited to disappearing into things, but also explore the space around fellow humans – adds new meaning to previous actions and spaces. No matter the circumstances, Liu Bolin’s silent witnesses, their eyes shut, try to fit in. What the viewer eventually finds in the camouflage-based works is an endless multiplication of constructed space and objects. Where is that billboard? When did I see that building? Liu’s work seems to encourage reflection on the randomness, seamlessness and incommensurability of spaces in the Chinese citiscapes.
The series that uses Olympic billboards as backdrops, with its comical unmasking of China's inflated public image as a modern successful nation, playfully deals with the recent politics of representation underlying an image of China’s culture that conceals a pervasive attempt at cultural homogeneity and conformism.
It would be wrong to assume that Liu Bolin’s exposure of the fractures in China’s harmonized cultural discourse remains ultimately contained within the immediate artistic public sphere. Rather, it reverberates critically in its political counterpart to the extent that it questions its discourse of institutional authority, one profoundly indebted to the narrative of legitimation of cultural and national identity which informs the myths of social consensus and collectivity. The pathological burden of individuals is confronted more directly as that of a culture caught up in the contradictions of its own identity.
Contemporary artists in China employ a range of media to explore the experience of living in a rapidly changing urban environment. Globalization has brought them into contact with western contemporary art, and yet their concerns remain unique to present-day China. “As the psychological and physical infrastructures of China are demolished – writes Liu Bolin – new infrastructures are built. We do not know how long the vestiges of the past will remain.” If art is to retain any significance at all in Liu Bolin’s universe of resistance, it is as the realm wherein one can articulate forms of communicative agency, in which easy consensus neither can be presupposed, nor appears to be desirable.
When Camouflage Becomes a Strategy
Are human beings animals?
All chameleon species are able to change their skin color. Rattlesnake can bury most of the body in sand soil. Thus they can not only protect themselves but also have better access to food. There are many other animals, such as geckos, beetles and so on, which have also learnt to so deal with the environment and their enemies in the long fight of life and death. In order to survive, hiding is often key.
Human beings are not animals. Because they do not know how to protect themselves.
The last three thousand years of human civilization seem to illustrate that human beings develop in the destruction of their environment and in the exploitation of others. The cost of this brilliant human civilization is that humans forget they are still animals, they forget their own instincts.
Human beings seem to have forgotten that they still need to think how to survive. While mankind is enjoying its development, its own greed is digging its grave. In human society, it is not enough to hide in order to make oneself safe. The human race is under threat. Rather than saying that the human species plays a key role, it would be better to say that we are just killing ourselves with our own hands.
What it means to be human today is complicated by economic development. What disappears with death is the human body, but what is slowly weakened by rushed economic development is the human spirit. Because thinking is the meaning of life, the latter death is more terrible than the former. War in the first half of the last century and shifts in the global economy in the second half have weakened our capacity to create meaning. Whether directly or indirectly, wittingly or reluctantly, human beings, who thought themselves masters of the Earth, are now being controlled by the forces of nature.
Human behaviour does illustrate this.
One hundred years ago, each Chinese man had a long plait on his back. At that time, this was normal. If a man had no plait or cut it short, it was a symbol of his innovative ideas. But now, the plait behind the back, which had in the meantime become a trademark of contemporary artist, is merely the patent of hairdressers, and maybe be disparaged by the majority of people with short hair. Long hair and plait themselves are meaningless. Their meaning depends on the outside environment. Human beings are born in society, and our thinking is determined by tradition. Human beings are so weak that their thinking is copied unconsciously by the next generation.
Mental enthrallment is more terrible than physical disappearance.
Sometimes I feel fortunate that I was not born in the 1950s. People of that generation have experienced everything, many experiences are common to the whole generation: first the mass cult of Chairman Mao, then the Cultural Revolution, an unconventional education or the lack of college education, the ‘iron rice bowl’ and being laid-off, public housing and the private ownership of houses, children going to school at their own expense and so on. The strength of culture and tradition can influence an entire generation’s thinking
Today the world views of different people’s are also different. Each person chooses his/her own way in the process of contacting outside world. I choose to merge myself into the environment. Rather than saying that I disappear in the environment, it would be better to say that the environment has eaten me up and I cannot choose to be active or passive.
In a context that empasizes cultural heritage, concealment is actually no place to hide.