Liu Bolin: the invisible man?

Photo: dennis crowley

If you google Liu Bolin, the results will largely celebrate the playful colour and amusement of his work. Bolin’s recent international success has centred explicitly on just that, ignoring or failing to realise the darker socio-political implications of his creative assertion of erased identity.

In fact, Bolin’s first use of the ‘invisible man’ was an act of silent protest. He disguised himself within the demolished scene of his former Beijing studio, destroyed by the Chinese government to prevent artists living and working together. The photo asserts his invisible but persistent presence and identity in the face of suppression. Other earlier works demonstrate equivalent acts of protest on behalf of the individual against the overbearing dominance of the Chinese government. Bolin calls attention to multiple cases where individual autonomy is erased by state authority: in family planning and lawful election, through the propaganda of the National People’s Congress, and in the individual fates of workers affected by artificial changes from a communist to a market economy.

What’s remarkable about Bolin’s photographs is their lack of digital retouching. He and his team hand-paint his face, body, and clothes to artificially conceal him within his chosen surroundings, making him at once part of, and distinct from, the scene, using the modest means of the traditional artist. The act of making himself invisible through art in reality emphasises his presence, and seeing through his invisible body offers a new perspective on the scene behind. Bolin’s invisible man represents all men, and the communities of men, women, and children he develops in later works symbolize the myriad communities of China that are uniformly silenced. Likewise, the warlike connotations of camouflage are not accidental; aesthetic camouflage emphasises how the conformity of the individual is enforced by the combative power of the military state.

Bolin’s work engages not just with China but on a global level, integrating the burdened presence of the Chinese individual with the contradictions and problems of other societies. Assorted photographs from his oeuvre address war in the Middle East, memories of 9/11, the threat of rising sea levels to water-based cities and communities. Bolin even goes so far as to probe the ancient world of Pompeii, creating a dialogue with classical civilisation that draws parallels with his own society. The more light-hearted of his works nevertheless play a part in his purposeful vision; backgrounds of instant noodles and mobile phones function as trademark displays of Chinese cultural identity that are at once part of but distinct from the fabric of commonplace existence.

Liu Bolin’s spectacular photographs are basically a lesson in perspective, asking viewers to search for the concealed rather than the externally obvious amidst familiar scenes. His work gives voice and presence to the communities at risk of becoming marginalised within the force of China’s cultural domination. As a globally recognised Chinese artist, it is important that Bolin’s work is understood fully for its promotion of individual identity, only then can it perform its function in representing and articulating a multitude that compel acknowledgement.