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David Wertime

The Art of Liu Bolin, Modern-Day Chameleon

“Hiding in the City No. 99 – Panda,” 2012

[This article was originally published on April 13, 2012.]

There’s something different about this picture–a ripple, a shimmer, a presence. Do you see it? Do you see him?

Look closer. Try starting at the bottom, where two white sneakers peer out from the rows of plush consumer goods. Now follow the image upward. All of a sudden, it’s as plain as day, as hard to un-see as it first was to see.

That’s Liu Bolin (@刘勃麟微博), modern-day chameleon, staring right at you. He’s been here the whole time.

“Hiding in the City No. 71 – Bulldozer,” 2008

Mr. Liu was born in China’s Shandong province in 1973, and now resides in Beijing. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Shandong College of Arts and his Master of Fine Arts from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He has graciously given Tea Leaf Nation permission to reprint his works through his representative, Eli Klein Fine Art.

A turning point in Liu’s career came in 2005 when his beloved Beijing artists colony, Suo Jia Cun, was demolished. Liu began to create images of himself against the backdrops of destruction that dotted a city so eager to embrace its present that it was smashing its past. He called them “Hiding in the City.” The series presented an implicit choice: Beijing’s artists could be at home nowhere, or they could be at home everywhere.

The artist at work. Author: Mattia dal Bello – Boxart Gallery

Indeed, there is a watchfulness, a silent power to Liu’s pictures. Although he is often described as “disappearing” into his work, a viewer experiences the reverse. His figure first registers as a sort of visual glitch, a mere disturbance in the force field. Only upon closer inspection does Liu’s presence burst forth from the background, redefining everything around it.

In this way, Liu dominates his landscapes even as he appears to submit to them. Perhaps fittingly, Liu never relies on Photoshop to blend his image into oblivion. Instead, in a process that can last up to several hours, a staff of highly skilled assistants paint Liu from head to toe until he precisely matches his surroundings. His near-invisibility is an affirmative act: He pulls his backgrounds forward onto his own body. The harder he is to see, the greater the triumph of his craftsmanship.

“Hiding in New York No. 4 – Ground Zero,” 2011

Liu’s subtle assertions of power and individuality feel just right for modern China, a country that sometimes seems to hurtle forward with disregard for its individual citizens, yet desperately needs their hard work, pluck, and ingenuity to thrive.

And as the nation’s confidence and influence has grown, so too has Liu’s. His “Hiding in the City” works began in the streets of a Beijing eager to show the world its might, but have since expanded to straddle the globe. He is there in front of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, New York’s Ground Zero, and Milan’s Duomo, watching you, waiting for you to find him and to acknowledge him.

Please enjoy some of Tea Leaf Nation’s favorites, collected below. You can find many more at ekfineart.com.

“Duomo di Milano,”
“CCTV-1,” 2006
“Dragon Series Panel 4 of 9,” 2010
“Hiding in the City No. 17 – People’s Policeman,” 2006
“Hiding in the City No. 51 – Road block,” 2007
“Hiding in the City No. 46 – Family,” 2006
“Shadow I No. 6 – Old Building,” 2010
“Teatro alla Scala,” 2010

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.