Reveals by Concealing
“Art Paris,” by Liu Bolin. Courtesy of Liu Bolin et Galerie Paris-Beijing.
Many animals and insects use camouflage as a way of concealing themselves from predatory jaws. Guerrilla soldiers, too, have long daubed one another in khaki paints to blend in with their background. Yet it is only relatively recently that camouflage has been used as a strikingly effective means of artistic expression, notably by the pioneering Chinese artist Liu Bolin.
Though each of his photographs is created using a similar process, none is identical. The artist places himself or a model in different settings – near monuments, in supermarkets, on railway tracks, etc. – and has the part of the backdrop blocked from view by the person’s body painted onto his or her clothes and face, so that the human being all but vanish into the surroundings. The outcome is then photographed from a few feet away.
Galerie Paris-Beijing, a contemporary Chinese photography gallery in the Haut Marais, has brought together a number of Liu’s most successful pieces in the exhibition “Hide in the City.” Many of the photographs bristle with wry wit, such as “Lost in Fashion,” which shows a corpulent man sitting resignedly in a fashion studio. It is difficult not to be charmed by the sight of his paint-caked spectacles and exasperated expression, just discernible beneath the disguise.
Other photographs, particularly those from the acclaimed series “Hide in the City,” take on overtly sociological tones. At first glance, the urban setting presented in “Bus Stop” appears deserted, a vacuum populated only by an Elysian poster advertising, one suspects (the text is in Chinese), vegetable oil. Soon, however, a figure emerges from a patch of sunflowers, hard to make out but nevertheless present and unsettling. The image comes as a sober reminder of the dominance of consumer culture and the extent to which personal identity can erode in an increasingly advert-saturated world.
Perhaps the most memorable images, however, are those that body forth political messages. Prominent among these photographs is the 2012 “Three Goddesses,” showing a poster in which three women in military dress lead a triumphant Chinese army towards a shining future. Here,
“Three Goddesses,” by Liu Bolin. Courtesy of Liu Bolin et Galerie Paris-Beijing.
the concealed figure in the center of the poster renders the triad of “goddesses” almost three-dimensional. It is a light-handed and unusual way of communicating the power of propaganda and the way its utopian dreams can wholly envelop its victims, diminishing their sense of individuality and autonomy.
A paradox nestles at the heart of Liu’s art. The more he enacts his disappearing trick on his models, the more eloquently he expresses his own concerns and interests. His camouflage reveals and exposes as much as it conceals.
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© 2013 Paris Update