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TED2013

Liu Bolin: The invisible man

Filmed:

Can a person disappear in plain sight? That’s the question Liu Bolin‘s remarkable work seems to ask. The Beijing-based artist is sometimes called “The Invisible Man” because in nearly all his art, Bolin is front and center — and completely unseen. He aims to draw attention to social and political issues by dissolving into the background.

- Artist
Beijing-based artist Liu Bolin silently comments on modern sociopolitical conditions by disappearing into his art. Full bio

Liu Bolin: By making myself invisible,
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I try to question the inter-canceling relationship
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between our civilization and its development.
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Interpreter: By making myself invisible, I try to explore and question
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the contradictory and often inter-canceling relationship
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between our civilization and its development.
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LB: This is my first work, created in November 2005.
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And this is Beijing International Art Camp where I worked
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before the government forcibly demolished it.I used this work to express my objection.
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I also want to use this work to let more people
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pay attention to the living condition of artists and the condition of their creative freedom.
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In the meantime, from the beginning, this series has a
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protesting, reflective
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and uncompromising spirit.
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When applying makeup, I borrow a sniper's method
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to better protect myself
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and to detect the enemy, as he did. (Laughter)
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After finishing this series of protests,
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I started questioning why my fate was like this,
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and I realized that it's not just me --
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all Chinese are as confused as I am.
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As you can see, these works
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are about family planning, election in accordance with the law
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and propaganda of the institution of the People's Congress.
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This work is called Xia Gang ("leaving post").
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"Xia Gang" is a Chinese euphemism for "laid off".
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It refers to those people who lost their jobs during China's transition from a planned economy to a market economy.
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From 1998 to 2000,
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21.37 million people
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lost their jobs in China.
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The six people in the photo
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are Xia Gang workers.
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I made them invisible in the deserted shop wherethey had lived and worked all their lives.
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On the wall behind them is the slogan of the Cultural Revolution:
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"The core force leading our cause forward is the Chinese Communist Party."
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For half a month
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I looked for these 6 people to participate in my work.
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We can only see six men in this picture,but in fact, those who are hidden here
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are all people who were laid off. They have just been made invisible.
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This piece is called The Studio.
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This spring,
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I happened to have an opportunity during my solo exhibition in Paris
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to shoot a work in the news studio of France 3 --
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I picked the news photos of the day.
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One is about the war in the Middle East,
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and another one is about a public demonstration in France.
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I found that any culture has its irreconcilable contradictions.
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This is a joint effort between me and French artist JR.
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Interpreter: This is a joint effort between me and French artist JR.
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(Applause)
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LB: I tried to disappear into JR's eye,
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but the problem is JR only uses models with big eyes.
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So I tried to make my eyes bigger with my fingers.
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But still they are not big enough for JR, unfortunately.
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Interpreter: So I tried to disappear into JR's eye,
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but the problem is JR uses only models with big eyes.
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So I tried to make my eyes bigger with this gesture.
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But it doesn't work, my eyes are still small.
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LB: This one is about 9/11 memories.
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This is an aircraft carrier moored alongside the Hudson River.
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Kenny Scharf's graffiti.
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(Laughter)
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This is Venice, Italy.
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Because global temperatures rise,
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the sea level rises, and it is said thatVenice will disappear in the coming decades.
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This is the ancient city of Pompeii.
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Interpreter: This is the ancient city of Pompeii.
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LB: This is the Borghese Gallery
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in Rome.
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When I work on a new piece, I pay more attention to the expression of ideas.
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For instance, why would I make myself invisible?
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What will making myself invisible here cause people to think?
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This one is called Instant Noodles.
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Interpreter: This one is called Instant Noodles. (Laughter)
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LB: Since August 2012,
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harmful phosphors have been found
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in the instant noodle package cups from every famous brand sold in China's supermarkets.
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These phosphors can even cause cancer.
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To create this artwork,
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I bought a lot of packaged instant noodle cups
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and put them in my studio, making it look like a supermarket.
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And my task is to stand there, trying to be still,
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setting up the camera position and coordinating with my assistant
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and drawing the colors and shapes that are behind my body
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on the front of my body. If the background is simple,
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I usually have to stand for three to four hours.
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The background of this piece is more complex,
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so I need three to four days in advance for preparation.
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This is the suit I wore when I did the supermarket shoot.
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There is no Photoshop involved.
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Interpreter: This is the suit I [was] wearing when I did the supermarket shoot.
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There is no Photoshop involved. (Laughter)
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LB: These works are on China's cultural memories.
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And this one,
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this is about food safety in China.
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Unsafe food can harm people's health,
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and a deluge of magazines can confuse people's minds. (Laughter)
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The next pieces of work show how I made myself invisible in magazines of different languages,
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in different countries and at different times.
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I think that in art, an artist's attitude is the most important element.
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If an artwork is to touch someone,
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it must be the result of not only technique, but also the artist's thinking and struggle in life.
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And the repeated struggles in life create artwork,
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no matter in what form.
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(Music)
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That's all I want to say.
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Thank you. (Applause)
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Translated by Geoff Chen
Reviewed by Regina Chu

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About the Speaker:

Liu Bolin - Artist
Beijing-based artist Liu Bolin silently comments on modern sociopolitical conditions by disappearing into his art.

Why you should listen

Artist Liu Bolin began his "Hiding in the City" series in 2005, after Chinese police destroyed Suo Jia Cun, the Beijing artists' village in which he'd been working, because the government did not want artists working and living together. With the help of assistants, he painstakingly painted his clothes, face, and hair to blend into the background of a demolished studio.

Since then, the so-called "Invisible Man" has photographed himself fading into a variety of backgrounds all over Beijing. Spot him embedded in a Cultural Revolution slogan painted on a wall, or spy him within tiers of supermarket shelves stocked with soft drinks. Just as with Bolin himself, the contradictions and confusing narratives of China's post-Cultural Revolution society are often hiding in plain sight.

More profile about the speaker
Liu Bolin | Speaker | TED.com