April 2008, Interview with Liu Bolin

 Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City, 2007, colour photograph,
 courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art

Charles Schultz interviews Liu Bolin
Liu Bolin: China Report 2007
Eli Klein Fine Art
March 22nd through June 17th, 2008

Liu Bolin trained in one of China’s finest art academies—under one of China’s most prominent artists—and four years later he was homeless. Under the pretext of Olympic redevelopment the Chinese government bulldozed the buildings of Suojiacun, a gritty artist village in northeastern Beijing, putting around a hundred artists on the streets. In protest Liu Bolin stood amongst the wreckage while two of his friends painted his entire body, camouflaging the artist into the scene. The work of art crystallized a decisive moment of destruction in China’s path towards cultural development. It also set Liu Bolin off on his first major series, Hiding in the City, which has been lauded by critics, embraced by the establishment, and exhibited in China, France, Italy, the United States and Korea.

Bucking the trend of popular demand he set out to create a new body of work. This time it’s paintings, photo realistic reproductions of Chinese news clippings blown up and done in a formally tight pointillist style. I met the artist on the eve of his debut New York solo exhibition, China Report: 2007 to discuss his new work.

WM: Could you describe some of the influences on this new body of work?

LB: There are two main influences. The first is the environment, the experience of living. That’s my main influence. The second influence would be the demolishment of Suojiacun Village, the art village where I lived with my friends. That was my first time to be personally affected in a major way by the government’s decisions. They destroyed my studio and made me homeless! After all that I became very concerned with the state of China. My work is really an expression of my concern.

WM: You earned an M.F.A. studying under the preeminent Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo, yet your first major series was photographic and now you have done paintings. What guides your decision of mediums?

LB: The first thing is that I studied art. Skill is secondary; art is primary. What’s most important is the idea, the concept. The object is the means to express the idea. So I choose whatever means of expression is best for a particular idea. For this series painting was best.

 Liu Bolin, China Report 2007 #3, 2007, Oil on Canvas,
 57 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches (h: 145 x w: 200 cm), courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art

WM: China Report: 2007 seems very different than Hiding in the City. In one series you’ve essentially documented yourself or others camouflaged into an environment but in this series you’ve painstakingly reproduced images from the Chinese media. Do you see this new series as an extension of the old work or as something completely new?

LB: It is a new series, yes, but it is still made by me, so it is also an extension. In China the idea is that one more is not too many, one less is not too little. One person means basically nothing to the greater environment. In Hiding in the City the individual was present, but dissolving into the landscape, beginning to disappear. In China Report: 2007 there is no artist perspective, there is no individual, no artist. There is only an artistic technique—the painting—addressing this social issue.

WM: In the press release for China Report: 2007 it says you selected the images from the popular media. It also makes the point that the government has total control over the major media outlets, and that they first select only the images that they think will best represent them. So basically, you’ve made a selection from their selection. What was it about these ten images that stood out amongst the other thousands you discarded?

LB: It can be divided into three categories. Natural disasters—the weather—something the individual has no control over. The second is the population. China is full of people, people influence people every day, sort of daily life. The third is politics—nice pictures of government leaders and the military doing their drills. If you look at media pictures from thirty years ago it’s all the same stuff, nothing has really changed. Even the drills of the military, they’re the same as they were thirty years ago.

Liu Bolin, China Report 2007 #6, 2007, Oil on Canvas
 57 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches (h: 145 x w: 200 cm), courtesy Eli Klein Fine Art

WM: That makes sense considering the government has never relinquished control over the media.

LB: No, they never gave up control. It’s true that many things change, but some things stay the same, and everything is connected. If you look at the paintings, in one of them it shows a terrible flood. The flood was due to the decisions of the government. The government invited so many foreign investors who only cared about making money. But now, because of that decision, there is so much industrial pollution and that affects the environment, which has a direct affect on the daily lives of the people.

WM: It’s a triangle of connections isn’t it? The government’s decisions affect the weather, or at least how disasters are responded to, and the weather affects the people, and that affects the way people influence one another.

LB: Yes. But it’s cyclical too. One day the government causes a disaster the next day they print a story about how much they are doing to help the people.

Liu Bolin, China Report 2007 #10, 2007, Oil on Canvas
 57 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches (h: 145 x w: 200 cm), courtesy Eli Klein Gallery

WM: Talking about the government in relation to art, I think the situation of the Chinese artist is very precarious right now. Take Cai Guo Qiang for example, here’s an artist who has created work that the government has forbidden to be shown in China. Yet he is working with the government on the fireworks display for the Olympics.

LB: Yes, I know Cai Guo Qiang does this, but it’s something I could never do. My works are always speaking about the government’s effects on society, what’s below the surface. If I did some collaboration with the government it would be like a campaign. I’m not trying to preach a message; I’m voicing a concern.

Translation: Christine Wang

Eli Klein Fine Art

Charles Schultz

Charlie Schultz was born in 1982 and raised on an equestrian farm in
central Pennsylvania. He graduated from Bard College in 2005 and
currently lives and works in New York City.

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