Through the photographs of the performance work and sculpture of the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Liu Bolin, this exhibition explores the interaction of art and society in contemporary China and the complex relationship between individuals and the living environment that they at once rely upon and are confined within. Works included in this exhibition focus on Liu's observation and comment of the political, economic and social environment that has shaped the way Chinese people perceive themselves in a rapidly changing contemporary society. His work also reveals the tension between individuals and society as a whole, a topic that shares a worldwide relevance.
Liu Bolin began his performance and photographic art in 2005 as a silent protest when a studio complex of the Suo Jia Artist Village in Beijing's northeast suburbs was torn down by the local authorities in their effort to bring the region into Beijing's mega urban development plan. At that time, Liu worked as an assistant for an established sculptor, whose studio was among those dismantled. Liu expressed his dismay and sense of helplessness through his performance photography. Standing in front of a once thriving but now half-dismantled and desolate studio complex, Liu had himself painted from top to toe in the colors of the background so that he simply disappeared. A photograph was taken to document the hours long process and complete the work. That inaugurated his performance series Urban Camouflage, later famously known as Hiding in the City. The inability of individuals to stop the supposedly progressive but unwanted change is presented by a still man with closed eyes totally engulfed by the environment. He dissolves himself completely and his presence is no longer visible, thus began Liu Bolin's artistic persona the "invisible man." It was an attempt to hide oneself by blending into the surroundings, like many insects and animals who camouflage themselves in the natural environment when being threatened. Being a powerless individual in Beijing, facing the sudden loss of his working place, and realizing his inability to make a difference, he metaphorically hid himself so as not to invite further harm. Thus was his comment on the fate of many powerless individuals like him, the so-called xiaorenwu (little men), trivial people who have no power to make their voice heard and are in no position to make a difference. In his later sculptural series such as Man In The Fist (illustrated on the right page) and Leaves on the Body, these little men are either firmly grabbed in a powerful fist, or seized and blindfolded, or encircled by seemingly harmless but controlling plants.
This invisibility and inability of the individual, however, urges viewers to ponder upon the factors that have brought up such a result and to rethink the position of individuals in a given time and space in any society. Liu Bolin has continued to explore the larger social environment that seems to work against individual choice and preference, in a sense, rendering their presence invisible. His "invisible body," of himself and occasionally of others, appears in a wide range of expected and unexpected settings throughout Beijing (recently in cities across the world), mapping the disparate sociopolitical fabrics that fundamentally regulate the everyday interactions of residents there and Chinese citizens in general.
Trained as a sculptor, Liu largely considers his performance photography as social sculpture, in which the body performs (by simply standing, sitting, or laying) in a constantly changing surrounding and reveals what is otherwise invisible or ignored. The "invisible body" here becomes a critical tool with which Liu illuminates the complex social environments that have conditioned the very existence of individual Chinese citizens in the contemporary times.
Through many painstaking camouflages and satirical sculptures, Liu exposes various situations in which individuals, their thoughts and actions are predetermined, encouraged or discouraged. They are programmed to live a life that is not so much based on their individual needs as it is based on the abstract concept of common good, which ironically is supposed to be coming from the total of individual needs. The intrinsic value of those widely cherished ideas such as progress, modernization, and development are silently questioned through the motionless body whose identity and personality are imperceptible. The predicaments that these Chinese individuals experience, however, are by no means only relevant to the people of China. On the contrary, the tension between the desire to develop and the inadequacy to keep up with changes has a widespread resonance in our globalized contemporary world.
Dr. Meiqin Wang
Associate Professor of Art History
California State University Northridge