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Photos of “The Invisible Man”.


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Chinese artist Liu Bolin is known as the "invisible man" and the "human chameleon" — just take one close look at his work, and you'll see why. One very close look. See him? Liu has gained international fame for his photographs, which usually feature him painstakingly painted to blend into street scenes or other complex backgrounds. The work takes hours, with assistants painting the most intricate details onto Liu's body and clothes, all while the artist tries to remain perfectly still. But Liu's extreme dedication to his craft has paid off. His artwork regularly fetches five figures, and one (a photo of Liu painted into a mural of Chinese dragons) even sold for $250,000.

With demand for Liu’s photography booming and supply limited, collectors are racing to the secondary market. Even there the waiting list is huge. Two years ago Klein sold one of Liu’s most famous images—the artist disappearing into a Manhattan magazine rack—for $18,000. He recently resold it on the secondary market for $46,000.

Can you spot the ‘invisible man’ in these amazing photos?


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At 39, Liu is lanky, with mussed hair and heavily lidded eyes that make him appear as if he’s just rolled out of bed. In fact, he’s been awake for hours preparing for the latest addition to his Hiding in the City series that has helped turn him into one of the most recognizable Chinese contemporary artists. Which is ironic, considering the series has earned him the moniker “invisible man.”

 

In 2005, Liu, then a struggling artist from Shandong Province with little to his name but a sculpture degree from China’s premier arts academy, watched helplessly as police officers demolished the artist village where he lived and worked. That trauma was the necessity that birthed his greatest invention: a photograph of Liu standing in front of his destroyed studio, his clothes and face painted so that he blends into the broken walls and shattered bricks.

He describes that initial photo and the many that followed as a silent conversation about the conflict between the individual and society, which in China often churns with the forces of economic development. “We are each locked in our own fate,” he tells me as assistants dab gray paint on his trousers to match the asphalt behind him.

Liu has since been photographed camouflaged into hundreds of scenes across the globe—the vermilion gates of the Forbidden City; supermarket aisles; Olympic propaganda billboards; the lagoons of Venice; Ground Zero; the Wall Street bull.

Often he’s impossible to detect at first, but Liu prefers to be ever-so-slightly off kilter. “When I move a bit, it lets people look and think about the art,” he says. “I don’t want to fade into the larger scene.”

Liu’s works combine painting, installation, sculpture and photography into a repeated visual pattern so versatile that each image resonates with a different meaning—repression, power, suffering, luxury. It’s a gimmick, but one found on museum walls and in private collections. Perhaps more importantly, he’s all over the Internet.

A Google search for Liu yields thousands of sites featuring his work. According to Artnet.com, which tracks Web searches of artists’ names, Liu is currently No. 29 and recently held the top spot for five months. He is the only Chinese artist in the top 120 aside from Ai Weiwei, No. 54, whose high profile arguably stems more from political activism than his creative expression.

It’s a critical distinction. Ai may be a household name, but how many people could identify him by his art? Liu, meanwhile, by nature of his shtick, is immediately identifiable. Eli Klein, the New York–based gallery owner who represents Liu, describes his client this way: “Liu Bolin is the most famous Chinese contemporary artist for his artwork.”

The production of each piece feels worlds away from the chic art scene where it eventually ends up. Take the bus stop, where Liu is in the process of disappearing into a vibrant propaganda poster decorated with sunflowers. Emblazoned beside the petals are four Chinese words: Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue.

These characters are plastered across the city, part of the municipal government’s campaign to inspire residents to love their country and improve their character. Few, however, seem to be taking the exhortation to heart. On the poster, someone has scrawled information for what is perhaps a more authentic modern Chinese innovation—fake documents. Need a diploma or a driver’s license? Call the number below.

As with many of Liu’s works, the act of fading into China’s sociopolitical landscape is subtly subversive. By plunking himself into the juxtaposition of two of China’s most public industries—propaganda and counterfeiting—he’s forcing the viewer to decide which is the real Beijing. Liu is clever enough not to make the explicit contrast, but the sarcasm is palpable.

Over the many hours the image takes to prepare, Liu stands stone-still, descending into a kind of meditative trance as his assistants turn him into a canvas. Passersby, some waiting for the bus, stop and stare; others don’t even glance.

At some point, Liu may decide he’s had enough of hiding in plain sight. His airy Beijing studio is dominated by sculptures of a peony tree made of phone chargers and another of traditional Chinese clouds—proof that he can do more than what has made him famous. His versatility as an artist defines the harmonious balance of skill and vision so attractive to collectors, says Megan Connolly, director of Chart Contemporary, a Beijing-based art consultancy. “In China, nobody’s just a painter,” she says, “because here, anything is possible.”

 

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