Can you spot him yet? Liu Bolin’s artwork may not immediately jump out at the viewer, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. For his two series, The Invisible Man and Hiding in the City, the Chinese artist uses a team of assistants to paint himself and others into their background to incredible effect. He has tackled every scene imaginable, from historic landmarks of international recognition to more mundane sites such as a supermarket shelf.
Liu talks me through the process he undergoes in order to produce his photographs, “I choose the background first, and then I stand in front of that place. My assistants paint me as if I’m a canvas and I become hidden in the background step by step. I need several assistants; some shoot, some paint.”
Putting paint brimming with chemicals onto his body has taken its toll on Liu. In the nine years since he began Hiding in the City, the artist has painted himself in almost 200 pictures for the series. He reveals, “the situation of the skin on my face has turned really bad and I need to apply medicine everyday. The reason is that at the very beginning, I didn’t take any measures to protect the skin on my face. I simply thought that the pigment didn’t harm the skin, because I had smeared it on myself before. Now, I use segregation frost first, and also a mask to protect my face.”
“My assistants paint me as if I’m a canvas and I become hidden in the background”
He has taken photographs around the world for Hiding in the City, but the most memorable place Liu shot is, surprisingly, Liverpool. More specifically it was the typical British weather that stood out for the artist. “During the day, the climate in Liverpool was really terrible. Maybe because Liverpool is too close to the sea. Rain, snow, hail, and big wind blew the whole day—I met all kinds of climates on that day. Every time the rain fell, I needed to run back indoors quickly. I remember that as my most interesting day.”
Liu tells me that the original idea for his project was born out of protest. ‘I thought it would be great to use my art performance, my camouflage, as an attitude of protest to attract people’s attention to the living situation of artists. That was my original idea.’
Liu began Hiding in the City in 2005, but since then the intended message of his work has been altered. “Throughout the different series, the point that I focus on has changed several times. Such changes show the process of how I solve the questions in my heart.” Ultimately though, Liu has one aim that unifies his works, “I want to express my concern about some problems which restrain the development of the human race, and that humans alive in these times have to face.”
Nonetheless, each picture carries a message. One of the most significant pictures in setting the tone for his work was ”Laid Off”, whereby six of the 21 million laid off workers in China between 1998 and 2000 were painted against a wall, fading them into the walls of the factory in which they had worked their entire lives. Above them a slogan from the Cultural Revolution reads: “The communist period is the thriving force behind our cause”. Liu tells me that “from this piece of work, the series found its attitude”.
Liu explains that he hides in places of interest around the world in order to draw attention to serious issues that are of importance to him. “After reading a passage in the internet which said that Venice will disappear with the rising of the sea, I wanted to warn the human race that such a beautiful place will disappear if we don”t start to take some measure to protect the environment. I care about the development of the human race, so I hid there with the aim of arousing people”s attention to this issue.”
Liu also cites China’s struggles in the years following the Cultural Revolution as having an influence on his photography. He explains, ‘from the founding of new China until now, there are more than 65 years. In the first 30 years, the core of this country was class struggle. In the second 30 years, the core is economy. Money is the biggest thing, and the other aspects are neglected. However, all these social phenomenons have turned out to be a source of inspiration in my work, including the pollution of the environment and dangerous food additives. I want to record these using my artwork.’
Amazingly, despite the intricacies involved in meticulously painting himself into some of the more complex backgrounds, Liu insists that he never gets frustrated. Instead, he reassures me that he is always pleased with the final product regardless of any difficulties that he may be faced with. “I never get frustrated with the complexity of the images. Maybe sometimes there are some defects which make the artwork not that perfect, however, I finish all the work pretty well.”