Timelapse of a disappearance: Talking with Liu Bolin

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On Thursday at TED2013, Chinese artist Liu Bolin talked about his remarkable photographic installations, in which he paints himself (and sometimes other people) with perfect camouflage to disappear into a busy background. His talk closed with a photo of Liu in the theater at Long Beach, disappearing himself into the stage with paint and pattern over the course of an evening. Watch the timelapse above to understand his process, which involves a lot of people saying “A little to the left… a little to the left …” I caught up with him to discuss.

Tell me about your process.

For the talk, I stood up on stage with my outfit pre-painted, and then one of my assistants worked with the camera and stood back to instruct the other painter on what to do, where to paint, what colors to use, until from the camera I appear invisible.

What inspires you to make a painting?

That’s a perplexing question for me. When I was preparing for the talk initially I thought I would prepare a talk about art, but then I realized it’s really difficult to talk about pure art in China, because it’s always tied to survival. My life in China has always been adding a lot of things to my physical body and mental, emotional state. For example, in my piece “Supermarket,” it has an actual weight on my body.

What makes an ideal shot?

Two things: position of camera and focus. Focus is the most important. For the piece I did for TED, the stage is very colorful and red, so I needed reds and pinks.

You mentioned in your talk that it’s not just an artist’s work but what they stand for. Can you talk more about that?

There’s a difference between Chinese artwork and foreign artwork. As a Chinese artist, I ask a lot of questions about society in my work. When I am abroad, though — for example when I went to the Louvre — because I’m usually overwhelmed by my artwork, I have to make art as a souvenir. The TED piece is more of the latter, a form of memory or a souvenir. This year I have a new plan. I think the TED stage will be the highlight of my new series, Happy New City. In the future I will create new kinds of art. My talk was as a summary to conclude what I’ve done before.

What kind of art do you enjoy?

First of all, that art has to move me. The creator of that art doesn’t have to be a famous person. The artwork I’m most interested in right now are those that take the subject from real life, such as mobile phones, because most people won’t think of those things as art objects. But through the work of this artist, people realize those objects can be art. This kind of art moves me.