Liu Bolin is a Chinese artist whose fame came to him through his unique work. He creates photographic self-portraits by hiding his body within the surrounding environment.

He often pushes the public to reflect on issues such as immigration flows and the pollution of the environment. This is the exclusive interview he released to SHOT Magazine.

Have you always known that you would become an artist? When did this passion arise in your life?
I started to learn art formally in 1985. There were few toys that I could play with in my childhood; we needed to make all our toys ourselves. It trained my manipulative ability, including ability sculpting and three-dimensional imagination. This process gave me a lot of help and significance. I have a stronger sense of lighting and capturing images than my peers. I have this expertise, but I also insist on my own dreams in a particularly stubborn way. My father didn’t want me to learn art, so he smashed all my painting tools. This really hurt me a lot. Even in this situation, I still persisted in my painting. I didn’t think about being an artist; because I have a strong interests in art, I continued my art learning. I had no idea what an artist was at that time. Because of my insistence, my artist’s dream came true. 

What was your first creation? In your younger years, I mean.
That I recall, my first work was a DIY black gauze cap of Chinese Ancient Officials with iron wire. There was no problem with the cap. When I finished making it, my father wore this cap. I think that was the reward and affirmation to me. I was excited.

The first time you explored the “invisible” path, where did the idea come from? Do you remember the very moment you got the inspiration to create camouflage?
At very beginning, in 2005, my thought was to use my art performance, my camouflage, as a form of protest to attract people’s attention to the living situation of artists. And this was my original thought. I try to use this Hiding in the City Series to outwardly express my inner world.

Thinking about your extraordinary work, the process behind it is quite interesting.

How do you create your images? How long does it take, for example, to complete one of your pieces?
The most important step in my artwork is choosing the background. I don’t need to shoot all kinds of backgrounds. In my work, I explain a certain kind of conflicting relationship between the people hiding and the environment. So it takes me a lot of time to decide on the background. It takes me about a couple of months to consider whether if I should do my next piece on this background. Once I start, it is simple; the longest I’ve spent on one is about 7 or 8 hours. If the background is simple, I can finish the work in 3 or 4 hours. Normally when we go outside to do one day shoot there are 2 or 3 people to do the painting, plus the driver and a person in charge of meals. While I stand in front of the background, they paint onto me the background that my body blocks from view. Also a videographer will take some videos. Generally speaking, 6 people as a team can help me finish one piece.

Many of your oeuvres have been made in Italy. What moved your sensitivity to our country in the first place?
When I was shooting my works in Italy, I was attracted by Italian ancient culture at first. I did the pieces about Ponte Vecchio, la Corte and the Colosseum. I think the virtual contrast is very strong. Because in China we may not see much about the history of Old Rome. So I shot these works which are related to the history of Rome in an earlier time.

The last project, Migrants, focused on the “evanescence in between life and death”. As an artist, how do you handle the disgrace these people went through? Specifically, how can you overcome the pain you witness without being overwhelmed by the tragedy of the situation?
Death is unavoidable when images are used to express the refugee theme. So I try to avoid the discussion of death in my artwork. The future and hope are the topics I want to discuss as an artist; I use my unique tool – images combined with artwork. We express the expectations of life through combination.

What is the piece of your art that you are most connected to?
In all my artworks, I’ve insisted on painting the images on my body for more than 10 years. From the initial ruins - big character - now it’s about gravel, even a boat. No matter what the image is, ultimately I connect it to the paintings of the body. I think this method has a connection with the life of the body itself, the most basic source of life and the thinking on the life.

Considering the political situation, what does it mean to be an artist in China nowadays? And how have things changed since you started working to now?
First of all, as a Chinese artist, when we consider the situation of Chinese social development: we are more like an instinctive reaction of life. It’s like in my artwork, I could see the big character slogan, and take it for my work. It became part of my thinking. It’s not only Chinese artists, they have their own polity in any country and any nation. Its regime will form the whole country’s collective living. It will interfere with the individual’s survival and awareness in society. So politics can’t be separated from art. Politics is like our air - we inhale it like a living body, then when we breathe it out, that would be my artwork. As the instinct of life, we should discuss something about life, whether we are Chinese artists or world-wide artists; it’s the instinctive reaction to care about our living environment. It should be the primary intention of artistic creation.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
I have two plans for my next works. The first one will be taken in Berlin, Germany. They will contact the local Syrian refugees in Berlin and I will hide them in the Berlin Wall, because the Berlin wall is the fundamental symbol of the entire Cold War. It has a special significance in the evolution of the process itself. Now the refugee crisis is the unsolvable problem in the background of the whole world’s economic development or in the process of political development. Artists think about human life, collective consciousness. Artists want to discuss the suffering that is in their lives now through their artwork: this is the basic art creation method. So I want to finish this work in Berlin. The second one will be shot in the south of France, about the ecology of the ocean. I will use the garbage that’s been collected from the seabed to hide myself in it. This is a work in which I use my life, my body, to discuss the relationship between the individual and the environment.

What would you suggest to a young person who wants to become an artist?
I think if you want to study art, you need to understand these three points: the first is to understand the history of human development from the beginning to the present, what humans have experienced, why we’ve been able to develop to where we are now; the second, is to understand the history of art. The relationship between art language and human language is very close. So you have to understand what the development of the art language is; the third is to understand your own character, because each individual has different characteristics. Different characteristics will lead to different artistic language preferences. Actually when you understand these three points, at the very least it will make your artistic dream more clear. The last one is also the most important: please don’t care about others’ reactions, just do whatever you want to do.
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