Chinese Artist Liu Bolin on Invisibility, Materialism, and Orwellian Themes

Chinese artist Liu Bolin makes enthralling hybrid art, deploying slick subliminal signals and inventive arrangements replete with smart commentary on contemporary China. His walloping canvases and camouflaged photos are often populated with youthful ruffians, pretty pedestrians, although mostly the artist himself. Liu’s images depict the disenfranchised, displaced, and invisible strivers (‘the ant tribe,’ as they’re known in China), who struggle in a society laden with systemic risks, paradoxes, ideological schisms, and false dawns. His cool compositions display complex painterliness, vibrant viscosities, and optical oomph.



Amid a yawning spiritual-ideological vacuum, Bolin’s art is powerful commentary on the Middle Kingdom’s frenetic social fabric. In the end, his works are multi-layered studies of the ways we take in imagery and express identity. Over the years he has captured major motifs in China’s turbulent socio-economic transition, among them industrialization, expropriation, nefarious apparatchiks, the nouveau riche. With series like Hiding in the City, The Invisible Man, and A Colorful World, Liu Bolin creeps into ontological crevices, decoding and recoding art and life, as he tells Hint.

Tell us about your most recent work, A Colorful World. What are some of your key references?
A Colorful World takes cues from the sinister dimensions of contemporary culture, from our consumption of toxic junk food, intense consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and a world awash in rampant materialism and alternating identities. Despite the works’ mischievous and kitschy character, the underlying meaning is quite serious and addresses issues such as privacy, statism, faulty advertising, false hope, brittle institutions, bursting economic bubbles, and Orwellian themes.

What does invisible mean to you?
At first, my work was all about resistance and undermining institutional authority — the government actually demolished my studio because it deemed my work too subversive. So I made transgressive, subliminal pieces to express my dissatisfaction with politics and China’s perverse social structures. This got me tons of press, of course, so I continued along a provocative path producing politically sensitive themes, symbolism, and a polemic around invisibility. As an art motif, invisibility is basically a response to the myriad injustices and paradoxes in today’s China and elsewhere in the world. Ordinary people are being eclipsed by oppressive party politics and the result is stifling, repressive, and alienating.

You’re often lurking (invisibly) in your own paintings and photos. How do you fit into your own work?
I embed myself in locations that confer a deeper level of social meaning and culture. Ranging from graffiti and art to politics and economics, there is rich nuance in every piece and image I make. Frequently I’m the figure in my photos, but actually it could be anyone. I try to convey the interplay between private and public, anonymity and identity, and the invisible and visible.

What have you been doing in New York during your visit?
Besides setting up the installations and exhibits, I’ve been doing performance work in public areas like Grand Central Station and over at the piers on the West Side. I’ve also been exploring the city and taking in all the rich references and inspirations.

What advice would you offer the next generation of Chinese artists and avant-gardists?
Hmmm, try not to conform to the older generational ethos and don’t listen to your parents! Make every attempt to be passionate and reach deep into your heart to locate and define your artistic integrity.

Watch Liu Bolin at TED Talks 2013:

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