Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
Meet the invisible man. Once you get to know him, he will grow on you.
The invisible man is also known as Liu Bolin, a Beijing-based Chinese artist, a member of Generation X, a fast rising star within the art world (he recently designed an album cover for Bon Jovi), but still little known outside of it.
Liu is also an excellent example of how art is a solid medium to view a fast changing China. His art offers a glimpse into a facet of China's culture and subcultures, which vastly remain under the radar and under reported by the international press.
Simply put, anyone cynical about China's ability to change into a more open society when it comes to freedom of expression, should get to known Liu better.
In 2013 Liu wowed the audience at TED Talks, where he shared the inspiration and impetus behind his art. Liu's signature is choosing cultural and historical scenes and paints himself into the backdrop. To the audience he appears opaque, a part and yet apart from the scene.
There we see Liu at a supermarket painted into the backdrop of soda cans.
There we see Liu woven into a tapestry of instant noodles.
There we see Liu embedded amongst factory workers, camouflaged in G.I. Joe-like paint.
His work is as colorful as a candy store and is so very cool.
More importantly Liu's growing success and his creations extends beyond the art scene, and is a refreshing testament to China today. The irony is that for a country that is most criticized for its lack of freedom of press and expression, there is value and power in its art and artists.
Sure, there are the darker cases of artists such as Ai Wei-Wei who have been imprisoned or censored for their work, but there is the more hopeful existence of change in artists such as Liu who have cleverly found ways to share or critique an aspect of society within the confines of a non-democratic country.
Twenty-four years after Tiananmen Square, 15 years after China entered the WTO, China is now the second largest economy after the United States, surpassing Japan. Economically it has grown leaps and bounds, and yet when it comes to freedom of expression as defined by western democracies, it remains slow moving and readily criticized by journalists and Sino watchers.
Environmental pollution, bad air, Internet censorship a la Google, media censorship, political dissidents, corruption, spoiled children, wealth gone wild, are all facets of today's China, but so are artists such as Liu who not only survive but thrive under the Communist government.
The China that we often see on the surface whether it be in media, in pop culture, or in memory, is in reality ever evolving. There are many faces and facets of the society that remain unknown to mere observers.
As a journalist who lived and worked in Hong Kong, first from 1996 to 2001, and then from 2010 to 2013, I frequently traveled to Mainland China to cover stories, to visit family and friends or for leisure. My overall experience as a writer and observer is that the government wields a heavy hand when it comes to media and art, but there are signs of a more open society (although it may be considered at a snail's pace to western democratic societies).
True, I could not access Google and my Gmail or Facebook, but I was also introduced to an underground rock scene, to journalism students who asked thoughtful questions and who were inspired into the profession to tell the truth, and met young intellectuals and artists who like Liu find ways to openly express themselves within the boundaries of society and reality.
Liu's art is bold in that it offers commentary and criticism of modern society. In "Xia Gang (the Chinese terms for "laid off"), he introduces the reality of the end of the state-owned enterprises and the reality of capitalism under a façade of communism. In another work he's painted himself into a supermarket shelf of vegetables, which addresses the controversy over tampered foods in China.
The invisible man extends beyond Chinese borders. Liu travels to New York, in front of the 9/11 site and in front of the symbolic bull on Wall Street. It is up to the observer to interpret the underlying message, and as with any art there are countless ways to interpret was is presented. Meaning is found in the eye of the beholder.
Liu's art might not be everyone's cup of tea. It's not pretty, it isn't a static portrait, but rather something living and breathing. No matter though. Hopefully in the coming years there will be more artists such as Liu Bolin. The underlying message in the art is hope and transparency, and that with time Liu's work will steadily become more visible.
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