In the open

Updated: 2012-04-27 07:40

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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In the open

Liu Bolin is painted in front of the half-constructed memorial at Ground Zero. Provided to China Daily

Chinese artist delves deep into East-West experience

Liu Bolin is stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight. For a long time the Chinese artist has been the man behind the scenes, painstakingly and with minute precision painting and blending himself into backgrounds in China and elsewhere.

Liu's iconic images have earned him international acclaim and the nickname "Invisible Man."

His spread in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar featured a collaboration with five world-renowned fashion designers - Angela Missoni, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, and Valentino's Maria Grazia and Perpaolo Piccioli. The resulting photos are part of Lost in Art, a new exhibition on display for the first time at Eli Klein Fine Art Gallery in New York, along with two photos from his Hiding in New York series and a sculpture constructed of cell phone chargers.

"This collaboration with Harper's Bazaar opened a new artistic window for me," Liu says. "As my artworks are continuously exhibited abroad, I have slowly started to come into contact with several international fashion brands. Because art's inheritance of tradition and innovation are completely interconnected with the soul of fashion, I also slowly started to appreciate designers' understanding of fashion and tradition."

The collaborations required the fashion designers to stand for hours as they were fully painted from head to toe, a process that was extremely intensive, Liu says.

"I was a bit nervous when I first began planning, because I thought that famous designers might be rather difficult to deal with," Liu says. "However, upon starting to work together, it was not at all as I had initially feared. The designers made their collaboration with me a wonderful artistic journey. We all developed very good rapport."

In an interview with Jean Paul Gaultier, the designer says he loved the resulting photograph.

"When Glenda Bailey of Harper's Bazaar asked me to participate in this special project, I looked at the work of Liu Bolin and was immediately won over," the designer says. "In a way I also try to disappear behind my designs, so being painted into the stripes was very fitting."

However, Gaultier did not expect the process to be so time-consuming, he says. When he realized he would have to stand still for almost three hours, he panicked.

"But Liu Bolin was great," Gaultier says. "He knows how it feels so he massaged my legs to give me strength to persevere."

Eli Klein, who represents Liu Bolin and helped coordinate the Harper's Bazaar project, says the photographs were interesting because of the combination of mediums.

"Not every designer would have agreed to it," he says. "We are extremely grateful that designers of Jean Paul Gaultier's caliber did agree to participate."

Along with the fashion collaboration photographs, two photographs from Liu's New York series are also on display.

"New York is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it is one of the most important cities that have witnessed the development of the modern world," Liu says. "It also has many important sites that have borne witness to aspects of modern society."

One such site is Ground Zero and the events of 9/11, which Liu chose to focus on in his New York photographs. In one image he is pictured in front of the half-constructed memorial at Ground Zero; in the other, he is painted into the Tiles for America memorial in New York's West Village. The artist has taken a total of eight photographs in New York, but only five have been released.

Liu's 9/11 photographs are an attempt to show Chinese solidarity with the victims of the attacks, Klein says. The artist felt very strongly that he wanted to focus on the event in his New York series, he says.

Many of Liu's works do convey social commentary. In fact, his first photograph in the "Invisible Man" style was created in response to the planned (and subsequent) demolition of his artist village residence in Beijing in 2005.

"When I first started working on the 'Hiding in the City' series, I was creating a voice and a freedom for artists' work," Liu says. "Through the pieces in this series, I also aimed to establish the traits of questioning and reflection within myself. At that time, my works became an inspection of Chinese society and a way to comprehend this society."

As Liu continued with the photographs, he came to realize that the issues raised in his work might not only be unique to China, he says.

"Against the background of global wars, energy crises, and economic and political problems exist these problems of human civilization," he says. "We are all being slowly dispelled from the civilization that we ourselves have created. I use my works to question mankind's civilization and development."

This aspect of Liu's work is a prevailing theme in the Chinese art world, Klein says.

"In China, art is used to say things," he says. "It's a medium, and a force for social commentary. Throughout the series, Liu has used it to explore the relationship between individuals and their environments, and to bring attention to certain things."

He points to Liu's cellphone charger sculpture, which hangs a curtain of cords over a peony flower fashioned from stainless steel. The sculpture attempts to address wealth and mass consumerism in China, Klein says. One photo presents the artist painted into a bulletin board of job postings, in hopes of spotlighting unemployment anxieties among Chinese youth.

But Liu believes that Western audiences are more inclined to interpret his work through preconceived ideas about Chinese culture, he says.

"Easterners and Westerners have different methods of deciphering my work," he says. "Western audiences more often understand my works through the lens of Chinese ideology. And in China, there are two types of people: one is heavily influenced by Internet culture and by the common people, and they agree with the depth of my thoughts and my method of using art to reflect on society. The other type is more influenced by mainstream media. They don't focus on why I do my work, but rather use my work as an angle from which to question Chinese society's pollution of its environment."

From a Western perspective, Klein believes that both American and Chinese audiences seem to understand Liu's concept.

"People everywhere seem to really grasp the idea," he says. "Often they'll put their own two cents in, and what it means to them. It's something that visually and aesthetically, people understand. You have something so conceptually interesting, paired with something so aesthetically desirable - that mix has a lot of allure."

Liu will next paint himself into scenes in both Rome and Pompeii, he says. Another project in the works is titled Testing the Brakes, which will explore the intersection between "high-speed cars, mankind's life and modern civilization".

Liu says his future work will focus on the cultural differences between East and West, to better "question and reflect upon the relationship between China and the rest of the world".