Liu Bolin: The Invisible Man
As China undergoes widespread, thorough transformations to become a highly developed twenty-first century nation, it is confronted with the perennial question: How much change is too much? While modernization may hold many solutions to critical issues in China, it also introduces new ideas and ways of life that threaten to supplant old traditions and values. Moreover, the environmental damage caused by rapid modernization poses grave short- and long-term risks. Where is the balance between beneficial progress on the one hand, and national identity and culture, tradition, and a sustainable environment on the other? In China there is clearly no consensus on this quandary, and the dialogue between the advantages and disadvantages of modernizing rages.
Contemporary Chinese artists have been challenging the Central Committee’s continual and forceful pushing forward of economic, agricultural, industrial, technological, and architectural developments since the 1980s. They create artworks that reflect on their government’s current policies, weigh its actions, and comment on who wins and who loses in the end.
One such commentator is performance artist and photographer Liu Bolin. In elaborately prepared photographs, he embodies the role of the conflicted citizen in a country torn between tradition and “progress,” communal interests and individual freedom. Camouflaged in a particular setting then photographed by his assistants, Liu employs concealment as a method for addressing activeness/passivity, identity, and appearance.
When I was first introduced to Liu Bolin’s photograph Bulldozer, I did not see the figure hidden in the image. When I finally noticed him, painted so that he hides in plain sight, it unnerved me that he had been looking at me the whole time—that he had seen me before I had seen him. The concealed individual in Liu’s photographs often looks directly at the viewer from the center of the scene. But since he must remain immobile (if he moves, he will be spotted), does the hidden individual have the advantage? Though he can observe without being observed, he is unable to act. As a result, the notions of observer and observed, active and passive become entangled.
Primarily self-portraiture, Liu’s works raise the additional question of what it means that the hidden figure’s gaze is the artist’s own. Is the artist posing as a martyr, a teacher, merely one of us, or someone else altogether? Is he judging us (the viewers), the authorities, both, neither? Furthermore, where does this discussion lead when the hidden figure is read as a symbol of the ordinary Chinese citizen, silent and hidden among billions of compatriots in a country with questionable policies? For that matter, what do Liu’s photographs say about the position and responsibilities of any citizen of any country?
By embedding the individual within the setting, Liu challenges notions of identity. Fixed in position, the individual is a distinct part of the space he inhabits. Is he, then, a product or producer of his surroundings and, by extension, his country? The implications of the photographs that are clearly set in China are further complicated by the swiftly changing identity of the nation itself. Do (or should) Chinese citizens identify with the old, traditional China—which, as Liu’s Demolition photographs indicate, is being turned to rubble—or the new China—which is gaining strength every time a new building, such as the one in Bird’s Nest, is erected? As the values, traditions, and even physical landscape of China and its people change, one must ask: What is China, and what does it mean to be Chinese today?
Liu Bolin’s focus on appearance (or disappearance, as it may be) suggests questions of external and internal, body and mind. Liu asserts that human beings have unthinkingly become prisoners of culture and tradition—an idea perhaps reflected in Great Wall. This “mental enthrallment is more terrible than physical disappearance,” he declares. Yet I wonder if mental enthrallment is linked to the physical disappearance. Could the external camouflage Liu depicts reflect an internal camouflage—a willingness to unthinkingly accept the world as it is, to unquestioningly adopt societal values, to comply with the rules of the governing body? Many of Liu’s photographs, including Bird’s Nest and Panda, reflect the widespread embrace of national symbols by the ordinary Chinese citizen. Is this cooperation to be condemned for undermining the power and identity of the individual, or is it to be accepted as a means through which a nation can unite and progress?
Liu’s photographs based in urban and commercial settings seem to show unity through consumerism and signature buildings. By contrast, his photographs in rural settings suggest that conformity, a prized traditional value in Chinese culture, is problematic. Animals may use camouflage to survive, but, Liu says, “In human society, it is not enough to hide in order to make oneself safe.” The difference, Liu and his photographs suggest, is that humans are self-destructive: “We are just killing ourselves with our own hands.”
Nowhere is this message clearer than in Ancient Watercourse, The Yellow River, and Coal Pile, all of which refer to the extensive environmental destruction in China that is caused directly by humans. For example, water is of critical concern across the globe, but China is particularly suffering from overuse and drought in the northeast and flooding in the south. And with surging industrial development and booming population, demands for water continue to increase. In 2002 the Chinese government began building a system of pipelines and dams to transport water from the south central to the northeast (Beijing) region. This South-North Water Transfer Project has already forced millions of Chinese to relocate—an outcome consistent with China’s history of detrimental water projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam. Completed in 2012 after decades of planning and over 17 years of construction that displaced around 1.3 million people, the dam destroyed thousands of villages and flooded about 1,300 archaeological and cultural sites by raising the water level of the Yangtze River. Floods, thought to be caused in part by climate change, have displaced millions more. Furthermore—resulting mainly from pesticides, industrial chemicals, and human waste—much of the water accessible to citizens is unsanitary, producing critical health consequences.
The barren landscapes and prostrate, dirty, semi-submerged human figures combined with implied or vague references to industrialism in Liu’s rural photographs draw my attention not only to the extreme problems in his country, but also to my part in the destruction of the environment across the globe. His images remind me that we are part of the environment; as it is destroyed, so are we defiled—physically and, perhaps, morally and/or spiritually.
Liu’s works not only address issues that China currently faces, but also have global implications. The questions provoked by the series Hiding in the City, photographed in China, are also present in his more recent series Hiding in New York, and can be asked with respect to any individual in any community. The sometimes conflicting needs of the community and of the individual—namely, the necessity for rules to maintain group order versus individual freedom—must be balanced in every communal setting.
In addition, questions of one’s responsibility to the environment and to one’s nation are of utmost concern to people across the globe, as both the limits of the environment and tensions with ruling bodies become more prevalent throughout the world. Thus, when I look at a Liu Bolin photograph, I see his camouflaged figure as a representation of myself and of every other citizen in the world, and I wonder if his photographs ultimately bring us together as observers of a universal transformation and identity crisis. Perhaps our only identity is that of global citizen; perhaps globalization has made national boundaries no longer important; perhaps we are all more alike than we realize, and perhaps that is not a bad thing.
— Elissa Watters, Curatorial Intern
Dartmouth College, Class of 2015