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Liu Bolin - Hiding in Colombia - Mochilas
Hiding in Colombia - MochilasImage courtesy of Scream gallery and Liu Bolin

How many men are in this picture?

Spoiler: just one. Camouflage artist Liu Bolin on how to disappear completely

Internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Liu Bolin is presenting his latest unseen works at Scream gallery in London, bringing a whole new meaning to the term 'social chameleon'. Since his eviction and the subsequent destruction of his atelier at the Suojia Village International Arts Camp in Bejing in 2005, Bolin has taken his art out of the studio, silently protesting the oppressive Chinese government by blending miraculously into an array of more or less complicated milieus. Originally conceived as performance art, Bolin's assistants would paint his figure until he was imperceptible against a chosen background. This was then documented as a series of photographs and so 'The Invisible Man' was born. “The Heroic Apparition” is Bolin's first UK solo exhibition; catch it while you can – he's not getting any easier to see.

During Bolin's recent trip to London, not only did he paint himself against a wall of magazines, many of which were copies of Dazed and AnOther (see below), but he was also keen to create a work addressing the issue of homelessness. Scream held an open-call for volunteers who were either homeless or had experienced homelessness and over the course of 3 days Bolin and his team of assistants painted 52 volutnteers into a background of coins and bank notes. We quizzed 'The Invisible Man' on his sociopolitical motivation and how to go about painting yourself out of sight.

Dazed Digital: Your works differ greatly, from the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall to shopping aisles and magazine walls. How do you choose your backdrops?

Liu Bolin: When I choose the background, I always pay attention to the contradictions between the background and the development of human beings. In my works two factors are combined: the disappearance of my body and the background. Therefore, the background plays a very important role and it does means a lot. In China, I will choose some backgrounds to record the changing minds of Chinese people and to record the problems arising from the changing of society. The backgrounds are always daily scenes. You could easily find them when you take a walk on the street. In my works, there are many other factors – the colours, line patterns and complexity of the background – which I need to consider. In theory, the background could be anywhere you want, but you have to think about what do people care about? You have to arouse people’s attention.

DD: Which work was the most difficult to achieve?

Liu Bolin: The one which took the most effort is probably the Hiding In the City’s Bird’s Nest stadium. After the first snow of 2009, I went to the Bird’s Nest stadium. That day was cold and windy and the weather caused lots of problems. The temperature was below 0 degrees Celsius and my light meter wouldn't work because of the cold weather. I could not eat anything or even go to the toilet! I lacked experience as this was the first time I took this photo. The Bird’s Nest was too far away from my body so that the focus was not correct. I have to go back to do it again. This is the hardest one I've ever made.

DD: Can you give us a brief guide to painting yourself invisible?

Liu Bolin: Under normal circumstances I will choose the background first and then I will stand in front of that place. They will paint me as if I’m a canvas and I will be blended into the background step by step. All of my assistants are graduates from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. They have strong realistic skills and the skill of artistic expression.

The complexity of the background will determine the time. If the background is simple, it will take 3 or 4 hours. And if it is complex like the Supermarket, it needs lots of time since there are many colors and details that need to be articulated. One work I did in Venezuela took 6 painters 3 days to finish. Actually it’s a long process.

DD: When the camouflage is finished do you exhibit as a live piece for long?

Liu Bolin: The process that my assistants embark on to paint my body and make me invisible in front of the background is the meaningful artwork. Photography is only used to record the process. The process which I become invisible gradually is what I care about and it brings me inspiration. I see the process as a performance in a way.

“I understood that the training is nothing, the will to express your life is everything”

DD: The works makes an interesting paradox, a serious sociopolitical protest done in a playful way. How intentional is this?

Liu Bolin: My major is sculpture in BA and MA. When my studio was demolished, I found that realistic skill or the sculptural language could not help to create a work to communicate with society and to express my true feelings, especially my protest and indignation. That kind of situation touches my instinct for survival. I understood that the training is nothing, the will to express your life is everything. From that time, I try to use my body to express my inner world. I think the most important thing is that expression from the inner world of the artist, especially the expression about the struggle in life.

DD: You dissolving into the background, is that you personifying art in China? 

Liu Bolin: Art in China is coming into a really exciting period. Based on the development of the society, the politics and economy have changed a lot within a short time. Such change brings an obvious impact on the people, they need time to adapt to such changes. And such change brings abundant material to the artistic creation. So I think in China, modern art is in an exciting period. In the meantime, after the economic crisis, Chinese modern artists need to face all the problems which our people need to face. They need time to describe and to solve the problems that appear in the development of the society using their own language.

DD: Finally, which work are you most proud of?

Liu Bolin: Almost every work of mine is my favourite, because every background of each work is selected by myself very carefully. I prefer “the Unity to Promote Education”. I think this one is a representative work of mine, including the words in the background which possess features of the time. Furthermore, as for myself at that time, I was not known by many people and I hoped to express my opinion through this work. No matter the time or the quality of the work, I think this one is my best one.

Liu Bolin “The Heroic Apparition” is at Scream Gallery, London until 10 May