06/05/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Liu Bolin: The "Invisible Man" Journeys from China to the West

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"To touch someone," Liu Bolin says in his TED talk, "an artist must exhibit not just technique, but also the artist's thinking and struggle in life." Bolin's technique--disappearing into a scene by painting himself and then capturing the moment in a photograph--is pleasing and incorporates multiple métiers. His art also connects with the viewer on a number of levels--both intellectual and emotional.

Bolin's "Invisible Man" evokes child-like pleasure. I found myself transported back to a doctor's waiting room, heading straight to Highlights magazine, looking for the scissors or chair or hot dog in the "Hidden Pictures" puzzle in the back. What elemental fun and delight to look at a wall of stuffed panda bears or a Venice canal and find Bolin. "There he is. There is his face and there are his arms and legs," one internally processes, or says out loud if you are with someone.

There is more, however, to Bolin's technique than simple pleasures--there is the scene finding and set up, the painting, the social commentary, and finally the snap of the camera. It is a genre-bending combination of street theatre, conceptual art, and photography rolled into one. Bolin is both artist and acidic social critic. He is an artist of memory as in his simple and moving 9/11 pieces and desire as when he embeds himself in an ethereal array of sunflowers. Bolin employs his distinctive artistic process to reflect and express commentary about contemporary China, about art itself, and ultimately about the universality of the human condition.

What are we to make of Bolin's becoming invisible? The immediate reference point of Ralph Ellison's magisterial Invisible Man certainly resonates. As was the case for the anonymous narrator of Ellison's novel, the six laid-off workers--"Xin Gang"--in one of Bolin's early works have been made invisible by economic and social forces beyond their control. As Bolin matures and finds his artistic and political voice, he becomes invisible to criticize, to resist, and to strike back. For Bolin, as for Ellison, invisibility becomes a source of power rather than an incident of oppression.

Now in his early 40s, Bolin came of age as an artist in a painful period of China's transition from a centrally planned economy to the complex, imperfectly free market economy and global force that it is today. He becomes displaced when his studio is targeted for demolition by the inexorable forces of economic reform. Bolin becomes invisible as an act of protest and to record the change and brutalism he is experiencing. Through his art, he redresses his sense of powerlessness. Communist Party slogans are etched across one part of his body as another is blended into a world that is soon to vanish. (For another, sublimely aesthetic, take on this transition, one would do well to take in Lois Connor's haunting photographs of Beijing currently on exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the June 3-4 Tiananmen Square massacre of hundreds of students and workers at the hands of Chinese soldiers in Beijing, Bolin's "Invisible Man" warrants comparison with the iconic "Tank Man" who stood defiantly in front of a phalanx of tanks in the day after the massacre. The "Tank Man" eventually had to depart and let the tanks pass in the street. The "Invisible Man" is ever present, blending in but never retreating, always poised to reclaim the scene.

Bolin's dual identity as artist and social critic reaches perfect harmony in his work on food safety. From melamine-tainted milk that caused the hospitalization of an estimated 54,000 infants to the deliberately counterfeited blood thinner heparin that resulted in over 80 deaths in the United States, the "quick buck" culture of contemporary Chinese capitalism all to often cuts corners on food and drug safety. Bolin's eye-popping "Instant Noodle" calls attention to the presence of cancerous phospors in the food supply. This and other works about food safety combine masterful aesthetic sensibility with a timely and powerful message about how greed untempered by ethics and values threaten to run roughshod over human needs. When we see Bolin's "Invisible Man" we must ask why he is here, and therein lay the power of his art to inform and suggest.

Bolin's art travels and translates beyond his Chinese roots. His collaborations with the French street artist "JR" and Brooklyn-based painter Kenny Sharf reflect a keen discernment for kindred spirits in the West. Bolin becomes invisible within the works of these artists, like one musician picking up the melodies and rhythms of another. These works are exhilarating. Here the "Invisible Man" punctuates the distinctive power of the original art and respectfully creates a new and playful riff. In the process, Bolin reminds us that great art speaks to the universal impulses of humanity where culture, which too often is interposed as a rigid boundary of otherness, is a permeable source of joy and wonderment that draws us together.

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