By Elsa Costa '14
The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center calls its latest Chinese art exhibition “Hot Pot,” after a Chinese stew of variable ingredients eaten communally. In a short preface on BMAC’s website, Mara Williams defines the display’s theme: the reworking of traditional artistic norms in the service of new, rapidly forming identities. “China’s leading intellectuals and artists,” she writes, “are questioning, probing, exploring, pushing back against, and even outright condemning [...] official policy.” The artists exhibited do not reject this policy entirely but subvert it, using its own terms against it. “In a society like China’s,” Williams continues, “where the communal is privileged over the individual, an aes- thetic that favors continual refinements over invention is unsurprising.” There’s a strange tension in her words, since dissidence and subversion should mark the rise of the individual over this hackneyed trope of Chinese collectivism, current in the West since well before Mao. The contradiction is real, though, present in the society of China itself. If Chinese postmodernity exists at all, it’s nothing like the liberal-democratic Western kind: it’s a society with clear limi- tations and taboos, set by the ruling Communist Party, so that a baseline level of lip service to collectivism and to the state is de rigeur.
Still, things are changing, and new channels for protest are opening up. Liu Bolin, an artist from Shandong, created his “Hiding in the City” series to protest the government destruction of a Beijing artists’ colony in 2005. The series has garnered much international recognition. Originally photographed in Beijing, the expanded set consists of photographic self-portraits of the artist blended chameleon-style – with the assistance of a full-body paint job – into a variety of urban settings, including New York City and Venice. The Beijing series can be found at BMAC. Many of the pieces have a distinctly industrial flair: Liu is seen lying on a pile of bricks and in an old watercourse, or standing in front of a bulldozer and a stack of coal. In two further images, Liu is painted into the flashy, repetitive displays of an upscale toy store and a supermarket soda aisle. In some of these photos, the blending is so good that it takes a moment or two for the eye to catch Liu’s outlines, the subtle shading around his face. Recognition brings on a jarring moment of alienation, a questioning of modernity itself. Liu becomes, quite literally, a “city ghost,” a common term for displaced peasant workers or nongmin gong. As industrialization advances in China’s countryside, these nongmin gong leave their peasant communities for the cities, laboring in factories and on construction sites, living in slums, all but invisible to native urbanites. The city conceals, indus- trialization conceals, modernity conceals.
In “Hiding in the City,” Liu puts himself in the place of these casualties of industrialism, emphasizing the glamor and virtuality of the new Chinese supercities. This substitution is intensely personal: while Liu is present in all of the photos, in only one can other painted ghosts be discerned. Liu, a sacrificial figure, serves as China’s half-hidden conscience, an appeal to humanity in the face of inhuman industry. Still, there is a strange contradiction in this symbolic martyrdom. Arguably, industrial modernity itself, first communist, then quasi-capitalist, brought about the permissive attitude toward individualism that allows Liu’s work to flourish. A country of peasant communities, as China was a century ago, can’t afford to allow its youth to break tradition, much less to give them a life as art-world superstars. Even a second-world, Maoist China, under siege from Japan and from the capitalist side of the Cold War, couldn’t afford much toleration for individual dissent through artistic expression. But an industrialized and partially liberalized China can. If Liu is a martyr to modernity, he’s a very successful one.
Whatever his personal stake in things, Liu deliberately shows us—and unintentionally personifies—the tensions of Chinese post/modernity: between the individual and the collective, between the old and the new, between capitalism and socialism. Before he makes us think about these contradictions, he makes us feel them. “Hiding in the City” successfully induces in the viewer a feeling of uncanny distance and discomfort, a difficult achievement in a gallery setting. This sense of irremedia- ble alienation and helplessness has walked
hand-in-hand with industrial modernity since it first came to Great Britain, having appeared in the work of authors as diverse as Victor Hugo and Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair and Charlie Chaplin before reaching us here through Liu, its latest mouth- piece. Freud came up with a name for the sensation, the unheimliche or uncanny; Marx called it alienation. It’s a scary feeling, but it strikes a chord with all of us from time to time, Chinese or not, industrial or post-industrial. That, I think, is what gives Liu’s series its power.