06/02/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Harnessing the Power of Invisibility

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"Art is something out of the ordinary commenting on the ordinary." - Camille Paglia, American teacher and social critic.

What does it mean to define oneself cloaked in imperceptibility as a political statement? The contradictions abound, is it done out of fear or does it imply and intend to incite an uprising of the masses?

Chinese artist Liu Bolin first made these statements in 2005, with his "Hiding in the City" series, expressing himself as the "Invisible Man." Looking at his work, the first ideas that come to mind contradict what they actually define; Richard Nixon's 1969 speech on the "great silent majority" looms largest. It is the voice of those most vehemently opposed but who remain silent. That voice hopes for the best outcome while maintaining the status quo. Progress is desired, but those individuals who are instrumental in its ascension despise what it has wrought. There are periods where visual artists looked at the reality and comment directly, rather than employing steganography.

Such tactics have been used for centuries and brings into focus a re-examination of Nixon's proclamations "to end the war in a way that we could win the peace." By this point demands for a withdrawal was at its zenith. To gain a sense of when sentiment shifted, one could look at the covert actions of American Naval Aviator POW Jeremiah Denton, whose plane was shot down in July, 1965 and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. During a forced 1966 televised news conference by his captors, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse Code, repeatedly spelling out the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E". For the first time, naval intelligence and the American public were able to confirm that American POWs were being tortured in North Vietnam. To make such a profound statement, one not only required stealth, but bravery and cunning.

Around 1840, France's Second Empire introduced us to the Realist movement, which in and of itself was a brave idea. The movement was a rebuke to romantic and academic notions depicted by showing contemporary life as it actually existed in the aftermath of Louis-Philippe's monarchy. Its principles thumbed one's nose at artifice.

Gustave Courbet, a leading painter of the movement said in 1861 that "painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things." Bolin follows this example, as I see it, by presenting himself as a cog in the machine, exemplifying that modernization has run roughshod over intellectual and symbiotic evolution. How one uses this quiet dissent can be debated.

Fellow Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has made a career of being active in "social, political and cultural criticism" by not tempering his voice. He is "openly critical of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights". Ai is fearless with a modus operandi that flies in the face of his government's hostility, receiving worldwide support for his actions.

Seeking another point of view on Bolin, I contacted Kansas City-based artist Jessica Borusky, whose own practice discusses work on how one presents a persona. "Bolin not only draws from a historical cannon regarding painting, portraiture, politically engaged artwork, performance, photography (and) satire, but can specifically locate his work within contemporary issues of hegemony, capitalism, economy, and loss... while also understanding that Bolin reflects upon his location/situation/history. This entwined dynamic reflects the images he generates through (the) practice, turning the visible body into an invisible one into a spectacle to consider the viability of invisibility."

To employ both iconic and everyday imagery for his backdrops, I think Bolin asks his audience to understand the great, silent majority are worker bees that allow these totemic systems to function. Says Borusky, "(H)ow can making the invisible visible, through artistic practice, engender a conversation about the implications of cultural (and) social marginalism? How can that liminal space present a contemporary reflection on both self and larger systemic oppressive forces?" Whether or not this covert communication to represent the many shortchanges the concept of how our overpopulated planet, and especially China's contribution to this, I feel, continues to mute the masses.

To embark upon a series of stealth configurations I expect more than a sleight of hand to invoke some intrigue or unrest. "My intention was not to disappear in the environment but (to) let the environment take possession of me", Bolin says. Once possessed, now what? How do you roil the many to action? Does such work bring out the tumbrels or will it present a shrug instead, leaving everyone to return to their meager comforts?

We want to know what you think. Join the discussion by posting a comment below or tweeting #TEDWeekends. Interested in blogging for a future edition of TED Weekends? Email us at