A behind-the-scenes look at how to disappear inside the work of a star artist.
He might be known as "The Invisible Man," but his indelible impression on contemporary art has remained anything but unseen— Liu Bolin, the 41-year-old Chinese artist best known for photo series, Hiding in the City, which sees Bolin himself camouflaged into urban backdrops using acrylic paint, has become something of a viral art world phenomenon. With his surrealistic photographic performances, Bolin addresses issues at once as personal as they are intrinsically human; Buddhist notions of illusion, Taoist practices of stillness, contemporary ruminations on transparency and the nature of surveillance. In his ever-growing arsenal of immersion images, Bolin has proved himself to be very much an (invisible) 21st Century renaissance artist.
In a photo series to be released in 2015, Bolin expanded his scope to create two new "group" portraits focused around the theme of British currency. Through a personal connection, director/producer and friend of The Creators Project, Jack Newman, was able to join Bolin's cast of acting non-actors, to be painted into a large-scale portrait of scattered British coinage. The Creators Project was on hand to document Liu Bolin's creation of two new works (in our documentary above), and spoke to Newman about what it was like to become 'invisible.'
The Creators Project: Hi, Jack. Why did you want to be part of one of Liu Bolin's creations?
Jack Newman: A few years ago, I had come to know of Liu Bolin from blogs and posts that my friends had put up on social media sites, about this amazing man who made himself invisible within backgrounds. When I first looked at the pictures, it took a while to see where he was hidden within them. It was sort of like a Where's Waldo game or a 'Magic Eye' picture. I was fascinated with how he achieved his pictures and the reasons behind them. When I found out that he was visiting London to exhibit some of his work, I had to go see it!
A friend of mine was organizing the gallery opening and invited me down to the private view. I was very excited to find out that he would be making some new work and was looking for volunteers to feature in it. I could not have asked for a better way to understand his artistic approach and the practicalities of creating one of his images. That's why I wanted to be involved, to understand his creative process and to just be in his working presence.
As a filmmaker, what did it feel like to become 'invisible?'
As I am normally behind the camera, being invisible in a situation did not seem abnormal to me. However, the process of being made invisible in one of Liu Bolin's pieces was quite a challenge. There is a whole team involved in creating one of Bolin's large scale pieces. There was Liu Bolin, a photographer with assistants and a number of painters. Becoming invisible was quite a process.
First we were given gridded t-shirts to wear and asked to stand in front of a black background to have our photographs taken. The photographic team then cut our image out and passed it onto Bolin to scale and place our images into a photoshopped plan for the final image. The grid from the t-shirts matched up with the background image and the opacity was taken down to reveal the coins that would make us invisible. This image was then printed out and Bolin matched us up with a painter who painted the coins onto our T-shirt and face, in accordance to where the gridded lines were. Liu Bolin continuously went around all of the volunteers that were being painted and instructed the painters to ensure everyone looked the way he wanted.
It was slightly strange being the center of attention, and to know that all anyone wanted was for me to become invisible. It just took time, patience and great skill from Liu Bolin and his painters. I was simply a human canvas that needed to disappear.
Were you nervous? How was the artist's on-set demeanor?
I was not really that nervous, as there were a number of other volunteers some of which were my friends. The atmosphere created was pretty relaxed and fun. Liu Bolin and his team created a great team atmosphere, and I feel it was a collaborative effort. Bolin was very thankful to everyone for giving up their time and making his vision become a reality. Throughout the whole process, it felt very much as though he was in control and was always thinking ahead to what the final large picture would be. Everyone did their little bit to create the puzzle pieces which he put together.
Through your experience, did you gain a new understanding of the artist's work?
Through the process of being made invisible, I gained a greater understanding into why Liu Bolin does what he does. His work is not just something interesting and fun to look at, he really is trying to get us talking about issues. I also realized that it's not just Liu Bolin creating his pieces— he has an amazing team around him who make his vision a reality. It was a real privilege to involved in one of his pieces and allowed access to his working process.
What was the biggest challenge in being in a Liu Bolin photograph? And are there any strange set stories you can share with us?
The biggest challenge I found was the length of time I had to stand still! It took over 4 hours to have the top part of my body and face painted. We had to stand up straight and still against a wall while the painters worked on us, and were given small breaks every 30-60 minutes, but being still in the same position for so long was testing. It felt as though I was using muscles that I had never used before; I was pretty tired afterwards. The face was the most challenging part, which was left till last. We were allowed to drink water from a straw, but not allowed to make any facial expression for fear of our face [paint] cracking.
Finally, how hard was it to get the paint off? And did you get to keep your sweater?
Vaseline grease was put in our hair and a witch-hazel face mask was put on our faces to create a layer in between the acrylic paint and our skin. When we were told we were able to wash off the paint, it was a relief! The paint on my face peeled off like that glue you used to use in primary school (PVA in the UK - Elmer's in the USA?). It was pretty fun pulling off all the stringy plastic bits, letting my skin breath again. The biggest challenge with getting it off was the hair. The paint became gloopy when the water the grease mixed, I had to wash it 5 or more times to get it out. The funniest moment for me was leaving the studio with the remaining paint on me, which I couldn't get off. A group of us went home on the bus and got many a strange stare. Unfortunately, we did not get to keep the T-shirts as Liu Bolin's team said they may still need them.
In our documentary above, Liu Bolin explains his reasoning for expanding his photographs beyond self-portraits, "I try my best to convey the meaning of being invisible. At the same time, I've been looking for ways to challenge my methods," he tells The Creators Project. "By getting more people to participate, my work becomes more meaningful."
Jack Newman echoes Bolin's sentiments. "The idea of making someone invisible is a quite simple one, but I think it's a great way of highlighting a message or an issue," he tells us. Provided a computer with adequate image-editing capacities (Bolin is seen, above, using Photoshop), some patience, and a whole lot of acrylic paint, we could all take a page from Bolin's playbook and become invisible.
While Jack's photographs won't be available until 2015, we've got three new photos from The Heroic Apparition, Liu Bolin's 2014 show at Scream Gallery in London, below:
To check out more of Liu Bolin's amazing immersions, visit Klein Sun Gallery.