With bright red acrylic paint smeared in their hair, the subjects of Chinese artist Liu Bolin’s latest work pose side-by-side in a scene that evokes one of China’s most historically significant battles.
Liu finished his latest work “CHIBI – No BLOOD” as part of his “TARGET” series in Hong Kong in two days this week, depicting the Battle of Red Cliffs or Battle of Chibi, a bloody encounter in 208 AD, which foreshadowed the end of the Han dynasty.
Better known as the “Invisible Man,” Liu has, perhaps paradoxically, attracted international attention by camouflaging himself in images in his “Hiding in the City” series.
His latest work employs 18 people from diverse backgrounds who, painted head to toe in red and yellow, blend into the backdrop of an ancient painting, “Red Cliff” by Jin dynasty artist Wu Yuanzhi, from the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Liu chose Hong Kong to unveil his work as a comment on the city’s political evolution.
“Hong Kong has always had a special place in history as an intersection of the East and the West. I think it [my work] can provide an opportunity for people to discuss Hong Kong’s reality, history and future problems and others all over the world,” he says.
Liu has been discussing social and political issues, as well as the relationship between the individual and society since the mid-2000s.
His past works include painting himself inside a supermarket in Pyongyang, North Korea, and a collaboration with the UN where he blended into the flags of the 193 UN countries.
There's a man hiding in this photo -- can you spot him?
“The world we live in is not a peaceful place,” says Liu, “with things like terror attacks and regional religious war on the news, I think I can’t avoid (addressing) these as an artist.”
Liu’s latest work seeks to combine the idea of blood spilt during wartime with modern diversity, to send a message of hope for a more inclusive society. The artist uses a combination of new and traditional techniques to construct the image.
First, the participants’ backs are painted red, representing blood, war and life, and their chests are painted yellow, symbolizing Chinese tradition and inheritance.
Liu then positions the volunteers in front of the backdrop and takes a photo. The rest of the image is photoshopped in, to act as a guideline for artists who are standing by to paint each body. It takes hours to cover each volunteer with enough paint and detail to allow them to blend into the backdrop. Some of the participants even begin to paint each other.
“Now that we are painted in the same color we look the same,” says Brooklyn Etzel, an American student who lives in Hong Kong. “And this may be what humanity is eventually heading towards, where all our ethnicities mingle and our skin color becomes irrelevant.”
Apart from his work with human bodies, the artist uses various platforms to remain relevant in an era of rapidly changing digital media.
“I am quite sensitive to the world and I have tried to convey a lot of messages through my work. Humans have inevitably come to a new media age or smartphone age,” says Liu.
Liu started creating video works in 2015, and the following year live-streamed smog in Beijing with 24 phones attached on his orange vest to raise awareness about the city’s alarming air pollution.
In his 2016 Hacker series, he painstakingly recreated classical masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa, and hired a hacker to replace images of them in search results on numerous websites on Google and Baidu.
Liu says he works to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of art through a constant process of reinvention. “I am trying to challenge myself every day and I am eager to change myself dramatically,” he says.
“New Change,” Liu Bolin’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, is showing at Over the Influence gallery in Hong Kong from March 28 – April 27, 2019.