Secret Histories | Liu Bolin Introduces “Art Hacker,” Invoking the Spirit of the Times
Artwork: Liu Bolin, Tianjin Explosions, 2016 Archival pigment print. 49 1/4 x 98 3/8 inches (125 x 250 cm). Edition of 8 + 2APs.
Chinese artist Liu Bolin (b 1973) first rose to world prominence with his celebrated “Hiding in the City” series of photographs, where he painted himself to blend seamlessly into the scenery. Bolin became a veritable chameleon, flawlessly camouflaged within each frame, and earning the nickname, “The Invisible Man.”
These works were a form of silent protest allowing him to literally hide in plain sight in order to openly, albeit metaphorically, critique his country’s nefarious practices against its citizens since the Cultural Revolution. Each work was more than a photograph; it was a work of performance art that made the global art world sit up and take notice of his style and technique that were as innovative as they were unique.
Now, after more than a decade Bolin finds himself on the cutting-edge once again taking on new territory in the vein of Post-Internet Art. Here we find Bolin transforming classical works of Western Art including Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by overlaying them with images from the August 2015 explosions at the Port of Tianjin that killed more than 170 people and injured nearly 800 others.
Some 17,000 households were affected by the explosions. Buildings were destroyed or declared structurally unsafe. Thousands of cars and intermodal containers were damaged beyond repair. Then the toxic events began to occur. An estimated 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide (70 times the legal limit) stored at the site began to leaking into the sewer. After the first rains, a white chemical foam covered the streets. Thousands of dead stickleback fish washed up on the banks.
The Chinese government immediately began censoring news and social media coverage, shutting down websites and suspending others accusing them of spreading fake news. Some 160 social media accounts were permanently shut down as well. In February 2016, the official investigation concluded that the fire started through auto-ignition of nitrocellulose. On November 8, several Chinese courts handed out jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff for the roles they played in the disaster, while the Chairman of Ruihai Logistics, which owned the warehouse, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.
The tragedy of Tianjin has become the literal and figurative background upon which Bolin now works, using it as the visceral subtext for a new body of work currently on view in Liu Bolin: Art Hacker at Klein Sun Gallery, New York, through December 23, 2016.
Taking it a step further Bolin has replaced the original works with his own on several websites that were targeted with image-search results on Google and Baidu—a timely reminder of the fragility of our dependence on the Internet for so many things in our lives.
In addition to the photographs Bolin includes works of sculpture that blur the lines between art and technology. His installation, Livestream Vest (2016) features multiple smartphones attached to a lifejacket, with the front-facing cameras on creating an on-going livestream event inside the gallery. It is both a mirror and a portal, inviting us through the looking glass, into a brave new world where it becomes impossible to distinguish the virtual from the real.
The lifejacket adds a devastating touch, invoking the death of Philando Castile which Diamond Reynolds livestreamed on July 6 of this year—and in doing so quite possibly saved her life and that of her four-year-old daughter from the hands of St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez.
Taken as a whole, Art Hacker reveals Bolin’s extraordinary growth as an artist and activist who calls out government abuse. His work reveals an urgency underscored by the immediacy of our lives, both due to the nature of digital media and the speed at which everything can change in the blink of an eye. Bolin reminds us not to believe everything we see, knowing that images can be deceiving—and intentionally so. Instead he adds a layer inviting us to peel it back, to look under the surface of things and examine their depths.
All artwork: © Liu Bolin, Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.