On a picture-perfect morning in early May, the Chinese artist Liu Bolin sat in the plant-filled restaurant of midtown Manhattan’s chic 1 Hotel Central Park. Just the day before, he’d been on New York’s Randall’s Island, a quick ferry ride away, where his latest series of photographs was on display at the Frieze New York, the annual art fair that draws some 40,000 visitors over the course of a single weekend.
And, just hours after we sat down to chat through a translator, the artist known as the Invisible Man would be whisked away yet again for the next stop on his busy schedule, this time jetting to Rome, where he was embarking on a new body of work. And jet lag be damned, soon after that, Liu will make his way to North Korea, a trip, he pointed out, that increasingly seems as though it might coincide with an expected summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s a fitting coincidence for an artist whose work, though not outwardly political in an in-your-face way, is deeply rooted in society’s social issues—both at a local level and in identifying those wider questions that bind people together all over the world and across centuries.
“I identify myself as an artist, not a type of photographer,” Liu explains. “As an artist, I will continue to keep my sensitivity toward life, toward our day and age. I will continue to record the things around us in the contemporary world with questions about where our soul is going.”
But first, he was in New York to talk about the project on display at the art fair’s Ruinart Champagne Lounge, his latest work of the type that made him famous—elaborate photographs in which the people, often including the artist himself, are painted to seemingly disappear into their surroundings, the imperfect illusion serving to reveal the figures to uncanny effect. And somehow, by disappearing into his surroundings—whether by camouflaging himself to blend into the lushness of nature or the chaos of a crowded metropolis—the artist has been able to reveal something larger about what it means to be human in the world.
In this case of the eight images shown at Frieze, Liu worked in France in collaboration with the Champagne house Ruinart, who opened up their 18th-century vineyards and UNESCO cellars in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, over the course of his ten-day residency as Artist of the Year. There, Liu found inspiration in the French tradition of art and Ruinart’s history of craftsmanship, working directly with the workers at Ruinart in an extension of portraits of factory workers he started in 2006. ("I've always been fascinated by people who produce. To my mind, they are the ones who make the world go around,” the artist said in a statement on the making of the work.)
He also delved into the history of the brand, inserting himself into the cellars, and vineyards, and even an image by Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, who became the first artist to collaborate with the brand back in 1896. “I was attracted to the mysteriousness in the culture, and I had a inner urge to understand,” said Liu, who recalled being enthralled by the work of such iconic French artists as Cezanne and Matisse upon discovering them as a student in the early ‘90s, at a point when China was rapidly opening up to the world.
By traveling and embedding himself into landscapes both natural and manmade, Liu is something of an artistic anthropologist. He begins each series by learning what he can about the place, its people and how they express themselves through imagery. “Through me going to different places, different countries, different ethnicities, cultures, and languages, I have been researching cross-cultural, cross-nation things,” he says. “It's through my eyes or through visuals that I try to discover the human development and then the history of having freedom.”
To underscore this idea, he selects the backdrops that serve as the subjects of his images carefully, considering three criteria: the place must reflect some kind of civilization, it must be based in reality, and must address the issues, or questions of that reality—negative or not. It’s through this experience that he’s begun to reveal connections.
“If you were to compare these different cultures or nations, each of them would have something, a certain set of problems, that are unsolvable,” Liu says, before noting there are differences in the details. “Each civilization has their own understanding of life and death. You can tell these differences and the differences of religion by looking through the visuals or imagery. So from this perspective, in my work, there are different levels, and it's not focused on just one problem. What we do, what we think—through all of this, we tap into some essence of life itself.”
Such philosophical questions are a tall order, yet despite all of the research, planning, patience, and stamina that creating each image requires, Liu does not dictate how the audience should receive his work. Instead, he hopes to simply open a dialogue between artist, viewer, people and place. “I hope through my work to have the audience think with me,” Liu says. “I wouldn't say [my goal] is to lead or direct them, but to cause them to think about the issues within themselves.