A few weeks ago I had a chance to see Hot Pot: A Taste of Contemporary Chinese Art at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont. It was photographer Liu Bolin’s The Invisible Man series that compelled me to make the drive and to add the show to my list of summer arts highlights during a recent appearance on New Hampshire Public Radio.
Liu did not disappoint. His self-portraits, which depict his camouflaged body blending into various settings around Beijing, were the highlight of the exhibit. With the Hiding in the City series, Liu takes landscape photography to a provocative new place. Whether he is standing in front of demolished building, a piece of Chinese propaganda, or grocery store shelves lined with soft drinks, Liu (with the help of his assistant) finds creative ways to disguise his body with paint and other materials in order to make himself “invisible.”
In 2005 the Chinese government destroyed Suo Jia Cun, the artist village where Liu’s studio was located. In response Liu started the Hiding in the City series as a way of protesting artists’ troubled relationship with the government and their physical surroundings. Through his elaborate photographs, he raises intriguing questions about identity, activism, consumerism, and government concealment in modern-day China. Photographs of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, the Great Wall, and shelves of toy panda bears make clever use of China’s national symbols and raise pointed questions: What does it mean to be Chinese today? Is outer conformity also a reflection of inner conformity? What is the price of a nation comprised of individuals who can observe, but cannot act because of government control?