The “Invisible Man” makes an appearance at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale
A stark white wall of mobile phones. Shelves and shelves of magazines in an American news agency. Rows of blue and orange vinyl seats filling the UN’s General Assembly Hall. A mountain of stringy, rotten garbage. At a glance, and from a reasonable distance, these might be the quick summaries one’s eyes and brain make when looking at the photographic work of Liu Bolin. None of these descriptions sound particularly remarkable nor exceptional, but accept the invitation to look closer, and one will notice something quite extraordinary; each picture is disturbed by a faint and glassy shape. It is the barely visible form of a man, the artist himself, hiding in each frame in plain sight. Having mastered a unique practice that crosses and fuses photography, painting, performance and optical art, Liu Bolin cleverly camouflages himself with meticulous applications of acrylic paint (without digital manipulation) that allow him to blend almost seamlessly into backgrounds of environments that bare social, cultural or political importance. For Liu Bolin, the invisibility in which he veils himself and others in his artworks addresses tensions between society and the individual, and is symbolic of the powerlessness felt by those who identify as anonymous and insignificant.
Liu Bolin was born in China’s Shandong Provence in 1973. He belongs to a unique generation that came of age in the early 1990’s when China emerged from the debris of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was beginning to experience rapid economic growth and political stability. He studied sculpture at art school, graduating from Shandong College of the Arts before completing a Master of Fine Arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2001. It was in Beijing, just four years after he completed his formal academic training, that Liu Bolin became invisible for the first time. He made himself disappear into a scene depicting the rubble and ruins of the Beijing artists’ village, Suo Jia Cun, where he had lived and worked before the government demolished it in 2005 to re-purpose the site for the 2008 Olympic Games. For Bolin, this initial disappearance was a form a silent protest highlighting not only his objection to the destruction of the artists’ village (which had once been named Asia’s largest congregation of artists) but also the poor, oppressive conditions in which artists live and express creative freedom.
It was from this work that Liu Bolin’s “Hiding in the City” series was born, a series that addresses the issues underpinning the rapid transformation of Beijing’s cultural and social constructs by expressing lived experiences of the era. The disappearing acts in this series are sometimes individual and sometimes collective, and are staged in places that are fraught with loneliness or echoes of loss. No.18 Laid Off (2006) refers to the 21.37 million people who lost their jobs during China’s transition from a planned economy to a market economy between 1998 and 2000. The six figures in this photograph were made invisible inside the deserted shop where they had worked their entire lives. On the wall behind them is a slogan of the Cultural Revolution reading, “The core force leading our cause forward is the Chinese Communist Party.”
In the visually arresting image, Cancer Village (2013) rural Chinese workers and members of their families stand like ghosts in a barren field located near a chemical plant. This work highlights the human and environmental consequences of rapid economic development through industrialisation and refers directly to a village whose residents had been deeply affected by operations at a nearby chemical plant. The plant emitted noxious gasses nightly, local crops became inedible and groundwater became toxic. Several people became seriously ill and passed away as a result.
While Liu Bolin’s initial disappearance works relate to his experiences of China, the subject matter of his subsequent photographs expanded to include situations and contexts familiar across several cultures, times and spaces. Our obsessive compulsion to consume is an example of one globally recongnised human behaviour addressed in Liu Bolin’s work. In Hiding in the City – Mobile Phone (2012) Bolin blends almost completely into a wall of mobile phones. By disappearing into a seemingly endless sea of handheld devices, he questions our uninhibited urge to consume and depend on technology, how technology affects methods of human interaction and communication, as well as the unseen impacts that the production and disposal of technology has on the environment.
In Instant Noodles (2012) Bolin stands invisible against shelves stacked to the brim with mass produced cup noodles. These well-known products, sold widely across Chinese supermarkets, contain harmful phosphors that are capable of causing cancer.
The side affects of modern living are further explored in Liu Bolin’s work Municipal Waste (2014) created in India’s Bangalore and Ponte Di Rialto (2010) produced in Venice, Italy. It is in Municipal Waste that the artist’s figure is most obscured, hidden with incredible precision in a mountainous pile of rotting waste. When this image was produced in 2014, Bangalore produced 2,500-3,000 tonnes of garbage per day, much of it left to rot in unhygienic conditions along roadsides and in vacant lots. With more than 2 billion tonnes of waste is dumped globally per year, this image stands as a stirring reminder that waste management and waste reduction are the responsibilities of all consumers, world-wide.
Bolin’s transparent image in Ponte Di Rialto draws attention to the globally felt trends in climate change. Here, he camouflages himself into a backdrop synonymous with the gradual loss of cultural heritage; for some time now, maintaining the canal city of Venice has been at risk due to flooding that stems from our warming climate.
In an effort to emphasise the importance of global responsibility and action, Liu Bolin has featured locations and references to the United Nations in some of his more recent works. In United Nations (2013) Bolin’s hidden figure stands passively in an empty UN General Assembly Hall. This work was made during the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation, and the artist’s camouflaged body in the empty hall can be interpreted as an metaphor for the lack of consensus and action around the world’s water crisis.
The Future (2015) was commissioned by the UN to promote the UN Global Goals campaign aimed at ending poverty, encouraging sustainable development and fighting social injustice and inequality. Bolin stands camouflaged in a highly detailed background of 193 flags interspersed with the words and symbols of the UN’s goals. Barely noticeable, even less so than Bolin himself, is the word, “FUTURE”, spread out across the top of the image. Upon closer inspection, one will notice that the word is being propped up by the invisible artist’s outstretched arms. Perhaps the critical question embedded in this work relates to good intentions and well supported plans – and their ability (or in some cases, inability) to lead to guaranteed action and progress.
The most recent work in the Foto Biennale presentation is a work made specifically for the exhibition, produced in the city of Melbourne. Here, Bolin has camouflaged himself into a background that features a politically, historically and culturally significant site, the Royal Exhibition Building. It was within this building that the formal opening of the first Parliament of Australia was held in 1901. In Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens (2019) Liu Bolin’s presence – or perhaps, absence – is suggestive of the presence – or perhaps, absence – of Aboriginality in this prominent public place. It beckons viewers to consider their meaning and understanding of cultural heritage here at this place; is it a symbol of European invasion, or is it a site significant to a country’s coming of age as a nation? Alternatively, is it a place for gathering, for the performance of culture, in some way like it has been for local Aboriginal people? Like in many of Bolin’s works, these questions are quietly and unobtrusively presented, yet remain unanswered and open for discussion.
On that note, in this short clip by Timothy Hillier Liu Bolin shares some of his thoughts on his performance at the Royal Exhibition Building, the first he has conducted in Melbourne, and why the site resonated with him as an artist. Timothy’s footage also reveals a little bit about how Bolin manages to produce his remarkable images.