by Matilda Amaturo
The Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum hosts a significant exhibition of Liu Bolin, entitled A Secret Tour. The Chinese artist plays with camouflage within the places he visits, disappearing, and consequently giving a symbiotic reading of self in relation to the architectural and decorative structures in which he is found, suggesting the reflection of the human figure and its anthropic location.
The multiplicity of places in which he appears induces the viewer to gaze inquiringly into the aesthetic and interior profundity of being.
The work of the Chinese artist presents itself as a progressive operational technique that uses, for the final production, body art, performance, painting, and photography.
All these processes are based on a particular point of departure: the portrait of the artist, the individual, and the place where he is found.
The self-portrait is a subject central to all Italian painting, and as Pliny tells us, it was at the beginning of art history. To this leitmotif, Liu Bolin has dedicated his first exhibition in Rome at the Andersen Museum.
The theme of the portrait and architecture has a curious similarity to the domestic and monumental themes in the work of Hendrik Anderson; they appear fresh and suggestive creations made from his camouflaged presence in the decorative and architectural structure of the building. In the outside decoration of the building, built from the design of the artist from 1922 to 1924, medallions can be found in a neo-14th century style mixed with mosaic motifs and natural elements that conceal the portraits of the friends of the sculptor, an eternal reminder of their presence in those places.
The museum's collections are full of drawings, portraits of friends and relatives of Hendrik Andersen, and hundreds of postcards and photos dating from the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, depicting the faces of famous people of Italian culture and Americans in Rome, in both outdoor spaces and private interiors. From Henry James to Tagore, Umberto Nobile to Sibilla Aleramo, and Ronald Sutherland Gower to Maud Howe Elliot, the photos include an indelible though changeable group of artists and world travelers that circled around Anderson in Rome, Europe, and America.
In 1898 Hendrik Andersen depicted the Nazarene, with modified physical characteristics including a beard and long hair in the style of the Romantic painters of the early nineteenth century, which in Rome is prefigured by followers of fifteenth century Florentine painting, and especially Raphael.
This style coincided with similar tastes of many American painters enamored of Italian art, for example Sargent in Florence, and is evidence of the substantial use of mimicry of models in the past, and their disguise in a continuing search for examples to refer to and confront.
The new person searching for continuity in the past, while at the same time wearing a disguise, makes himself up to look now as then, in an exchange between cultures for the testimony of history and the desire for renewal.
The portrait then is a pretext; it is a more-or-less clear memory, revealing not only a narrative of events but also states of being. It is a testimony to travels through time to different places, a topical issue for modern man who, in his rapid movements and evolution, is forced to transform in the difficult state of being a stranger.
??% by Raffaele Gavarro
The first thing that comes to mind when looking at the work of Liu Bolin, knowing the way he makes his images, is surprise at how low-tech they are. He has a preference for analog in this era of digitization in which anyone can make manipulated images that are almost perfect.
And indeed, this dialectic between low and high technology is one aspect that stands out instantly. The apparent high-tech effect of the camouflage neutralizes the equally surprising manual process, the accurate body painting that makes Liu Bolin homogeneous with the environment he chooses to disappear against. This disappearance is perceptible only from a single point of view, the classical vanishing point, which obviously coincides with the lens of the camera. This first impression, and its relative reflection on the possibilities of old versus new technologies, or on the relation still possible between them, is in reality more than the product of the initial visual surprise, but also the result of a preference of interpretation that has always emphasized Liu Bolin's disappearance in the space being represented. The spectacular chameleon effect is however only the most striking aspect of a gesture that expresses total identification with reality and necessarily involves an affirmation of belonging to it, mainly by looking for a new way of investigating it.
On more than one occasion Liu Bolin has said that the origin of his work with camouflage was the destruction of a part of his reality. In 2005 the Chinese authorities decided to dismantle the Suojia Village International Arts Camp in Beijing. Liu Bolin responded by deciding to blend in with the rubble that was once his studio, becoming one with the ruins. The performance, and the picture that documents it, unambiguously represent a statement of his being part of that reality, and the silence of that picture says more than any loud protest or vigorous argument. Liu Bolin indicates, without the possibility of being misunderstood, that the physical demolition of the location also meant the inevitable destruction of what the site contained and represented, including his identity as a man and an artist. Reality is thus given in all its complexity, mostly as an objective being. The thing is there; it has this shape, and is made of that material. First it was intact, now it is destroyed, as much for its subjectivity as for being inhabited.
With Suojia Village of 2006 Liu Bolin began a series of performance/photos, grouped under the general title Hiding in the City, in which he immersed himself more widely into different realities.
Among the first works in this series is an image, also from 2006, which clearly indicates the understanding with which Liu Bolin explores the complexities of reality. This piece is titled #1 Tien An Men Square, in which the painted body of Liu Bolin is placed at a precise point in the square, while his face, with no makeup, coincides exactly with that of Mao Tse Tung in the large portrait on display in Tien An Men Square. It is a work that obviously talks about the identity of the individual and the Chinese people, using an assertive tone yet completely anti-rhetorical. It is exactly the opposite of what the portrait of the leader and its location in the square seek to impose. By superimposing his face on that of Chairman Mao, Liu Bolin makes what seems like an act of identification, which is required by authority, and in fact still desired by many Chinese. At the same time he accomplishes an act of differentiation, or better yet, updates not only his Chinese appearance, but also his aspirations.
The question of how these images express an engagement and reflection on the political and social aspects of China and other places is clearly a primary argument in our reasoning. The things Liu Bolin has said on this point have never been clearly one way or another. He defines his performances and images as social sculptures, but then denies them any antagonistic priority. Liu Bolin began as a sculptor and has never ceased to be one. In this sense, some of his three-dimensional sculptures, such as Fist, a gigantic iron fist from 2006, of which there is also a fiberglass version made in explicit red, or the series of characters in fiberglass with red hands titled Red Hand, or also Red Skull from 2008, are easily reducible to a critical stance towards power. You can also clearly see references to the military in the uniforms Liu Bolin wears in all his performances when he disappears into reality. It is a suit that, in addition to being uniform in the sense of universal conformity, represents the uniformity of power when it is constituted as a force that is not only offensive and defensive, but often takes on the character of an oppressor.
But even here I would go back to reflecting on the evidence of the images from the prior question of their relationship with reality.
By posing seamlessly within this reality Liu Bolin captures one of the essential issues of our time, where the sense of a world made of concrete elements and essential inescapable truths is regaining ground against the dematerialization of reality that has reached a sort of apotheosis with the myth of the virtual. Today, or rather for the past few years, we have seen a real inversion in both philosophical reflection and artistic activity. I would say that the reasons for this definite shift come from a simple generalized impatience with the intangibility of the world, which though started from a need for relief has undermined our ability to modify and eventually improve it. In this regard, another key aspect is the de-empowerment that has resulted from the alleged inconsistency of the world. A renewed request for certainty refers not only to the nature, the place, and the function of things, but also how and when they are used for common good or evil. To declare reality knowable through the simple evidence of what is, in fact, involves also the inevitable recognition that truth itself is accessible and shareable. One thing he brings with him is an equally accessible and acceptable ethical objectivity. From the moment we accept reality as a repertoire of things that exist before and after our possible and eventual interpretation, we recognize that this cannot change the substance of our actions, which in reality create consequences even when they are not dictated by circumstances. This is not an entirely abstract and academic battle between ontology and hermeneutics, but the practical necessity that finally this predominance that has made plausible the alteration of reality is taken away. The passage of reality through the media, and its interpretation that then becomes the new reality, is a perfect example of this kind of consequence. In recent years we have often talked about the existence of simultaneous planes of reality, and of media reality running alongside real reality, declaring them to be ultimately interchangeable. You almost have to smile today when encountering ingenuity seemingly sophisticated in these considerations. Because it suddenly becomes apparent that what we see on the monitor has a relationship decisively partial to reality. At best it is an apt representation, but in no way can it present itself as a surrogate if not in the sense of the neurotic perception of the world. It's like saying, very seriously, that if you want you can replace biological time with Internet time; all you have to do is stay connected at least twelve hours a day and the game is played. In fact you could sell it as a good way to fight free radicals. But aside from the joke, though in truth less unlikely than it seems, it is exactly this that happens when an interpretation of reality replaces, albeit of course temporarily, the objective and elementary meaning of things that are simply reality.
But it is necessary to specify that these things make sense in the context of Western Culture and everything we call or is defined as Westernized. In the prologue of the " Manifesto del nuovo realismo" (Laterza, 2012), which is justly considered one of the essential texts concerning this return to reality, about this passage from hermeneutics to ontology as a testimony to the end of Postmodernism, the author Maurizio Ferraris says, "Obviously, the breakthrough has more than one story, and above all a geography, limited to what Husserl called “European spirit.” This is the West that Spengler prophesied ninety years ago would have its decline. It’s hard to think of Postmodernism in China or India."
It must be added that today it is difficult to say with precision where exactly the geographical boundary of the West ends. It increasingly appears as a pervasive cultural force and seems to have contaminated more or less every other culture. I would say this is especially true in the visual arts. The history of Western Art, in spite of the fact that in non-Western places it often seems surrounded by a surprising mist of vagueness, has in the end left a mark and produced extraordinary consequences, often leading to unpredictable combinations. Even Liu Bolin, all contradiction aside, certainly exists within the scope of this very contaminated and I would say oscillating cultural geography. This is a condition obviously apparent in the linguistic formalization of his work, as happens with many contemporary Chinese artists, but even more so for Liu Bolin at exactly the moment he is confronted with Western reality. Particularly in relation to actual the Italian reality Liu Bolin is obviously influenced by the more typical and evocative elements of our history, and by everything constituting our environment that for most of the world, before becoming a reality, is just an image. It is precisely this aspect that Liu Bolin attempts to grasp, rediscovering the images in the towns and Italian museums and making them real with his physical immersion. But above all in this way Liu Bolin hopes to pursue his own personal investigation within the foundation of Western culture.
For Liu Bolin Italy, and the artistic culture of our country, is "the basis of European culture," and thus it is as if he decided to enter into the physical reality of some of our most representative places, departing from our roots to resurface today in an attempt to understand who we are. Of course as far as we are concerned the question is twofold: we want to discover what someone else thinks of us, in front of those images that he selects, and understand something more about ourselves. Liu Bolin’s Italian trip began in 2008 in Verona; he went to Venice and Milan in 2010, and reached Rome and Pompeii in 2012. His last stop was the Biblioteca Capitolare of Verona.
The choice of location for Liu Bolin is an essential part of his work. He stands for hours at a precise point, finds colors that create exactly the right continuity between him and his surroundings, selects the perfect light, observes as it changes, and decides what time and under what sky the conditions become ideal. But he also understands the effect of the place with his presence in it, what happens to the image, how it transforms, and the meaning it acquires. The technical aspects are interwoven with the conceptual, as though the languages alternate without finding continuity. This is true from painting to sculpture, and performance to photography. But even within the same language, the range of expressive possibilities widens and eludes traditional divisions into categories.
Consider painting, which in the work of Liu Bolin assumes the character of landscape, portrait, still life, trompe l'oeil, while also being a true tableau vivant. It is in this extraordinary ability to synthesize and set in motion a whole series of linguistic and expressive concerns that you undoubtedly find one of the most interesting contributions to linguistic evolution, characterized particularly by his artistic research of recent years. But rather than eclecticism, in Liu Bolin’s case it seems more appropriate to talk of the synchronic coexistence of languages, in a form and at a time which are precisely coeval. One aspect that becomes even more evident in a "classical” artistic environment (the quotation marks are of course required), in which the work of art that acts as the backdrop from which Liu Bolin immerges lends an inevitable uniqueness, is given by his historical analysis of our visual culture. The contradiction that is created between the "classic" work or environment, and the alteration imposed by the presence of Liu Bolin, is the cause of the linguistic dynamic that characterizes the final image, conveying a new identity to the place where Liu Bolin has been immersed and has enriched with a contemporary quality that is apparent. The image becomes real, and a testament to his reality, thanks to this distinction.
About reality and modernity, one of the first works that Liu Bolin made in 2008 here in Italy was UE Flag. It is an image of him, covered with paint, in front of the flag of the European Union. More than immersion, the image looks like a superimposition of two elements, Liu Bolin and the flag. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that this image, and for now only this one, is also a three-dimensional work, with the artist reproduced in fiberglass and like always placed in front of the flag, painted with the blue color of the background and the yellow stars. But it is not so much this that I wanted to point out, as the fact that this work captures ideas that are very timely, and does so in a way that is intuitive and compelling. The European crisis, in addition to being a financial crisis, is clearly a political one, and despite calling themselves European, people are not so attached to the flag or vice versa, just as in the image of Liu Bolin. But this is also a kind of Chinese homage to Europe; it recounts a relationship that has become essential for Europe, as indeed it has also conversely become for China.
UE Flag is a prime example of how a work of art, whether from the present or the past, manages with an instantaneous image to address all the complexity of the moment, unburdening itself of chronology and becoming emblematic of the dynamic of the time in which it exists.