China’s ‘Invisible Man’ Vanishes for UN Global Goals Campaign

BEIJING — Liu Bolin is preparing to disappear. He stands stone-still on a platform with his eyes shut, dripping sweat while an assistant smears Venezuela across his left cheek. Cuba is drying on his chest, but they haven’t even started Croatia on the right side of his face.

Liu Bolin, the "human chameleon," prepares for his piece, "The Future," in Beijing.Credit: Yuyang Liu for The WorldPost
Liu Bolin, the “human chameleon,” prepares for his piece, “The Future,” in Beijing.

Liu has made a career of hiding in plain sight, painting himself into backdrops until he all but vanishes. The effect can be both gorgeous and unsettling, as he transforms into the ghostly outline of a figure who seems invisible to the world around him. For a decade, Liu has traveled China and the world, disappearing into cityscapes, scenic vistas and supermarket aisles. His art has drawn attention to issues ranging from forced demolitions in China to the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico. 

Now he’s teaming up with the United Nations to promote its Global Goals campaign with the piece “The Future,” in which he disappears into a background of flags from the 193 countries and regions that have committed to the goals. On a recent Friday in Beijing, Liu stood for several hours while his team of assistants covered his face, hands and clothing in paint. Sprinkled among the flags were logos of the specific goals themselves — 17 in total, including “Zero Hunger,” “Gender Equality” and “Climate Action.” 

Liu blends into the background of his new piece, "The Future."Credit: Liu Bolin
Liu blends into the background of his new piece, “The Future.”

Those goals are intended to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which all 189 member states of the U.N. adopted in 2000. The MDGs expired in 2015, with strong but incomplete progress — the percentages of people worldwide living in extreme poverty and without access to safe drinking water have both been halved since 1990, but ambitious goals on child and maternal mortality have not been met.

The Global Goals are intended to pick up where the MDGs left off, this time with a greater emphasis on environmental protection and climate change. A star-studded cast of entertainers, athletes and artists is supporting the goals’ rollout. Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran will be headlining a concert in Central Park later this month, and Welsh soccer star Gareth Bale has already kicked a “dizzy goal” to promote the effort.

Liu says U.N. representatives approached him and asked him to contribute his own take on the goals. He decided to tweak his normal disappearing act. He usually poses with his hands at his side, but for this piece, Liu holds up the barely-distinguishable word “Future” as it fades into the background.

“My work has always been about disasters and social issues, like inequality, that arise in Chinese society — and really, all of mankind — in the process of development,” he tells The WorldPost. “So this kind of a piece is really aligned with my work. If we don’t stop now and recognize these problems, then in the future, they will all come back to us.”

Liu periodically checks the work's progress by viewing pictures on his laptop and making minute tweaks as needed.Credit: Yuyang Liu for The WorldPost
Liu periodically checks the work’s progress by viewing pictures on his laptop and making minute tweaks as needed.

Inspiration for Liu’s first disappearing act came in 2005, when local authorities ordered the demolition of the Beijing artist community that housed his studio. Angered by the destruction of the artists’ haven, Liu painted his clothes and skin to match the demolished studio behind him. The resulting photographs perfectly captured a slice of China’s contemporary zeitgeist: a country developing so frantically that it risked losing sight of its own people.

The pictures struck a chord, and Liu went on to photograph himself around China, highlighting issues such as food safety and mass layoffs in industrial towns. As word spread, Liu was invited to pull of his vanishing-act art in countries such as the U.S., Colombia and France.

Liu blends into the background in one of his early pieces from Suo Jia Village.Credit: Klein Sun Gallery, Liu Bolin
Liu blends into the background in one of his early pieces from Suo Jia Village.

“I started out in protest: the artist community was getting demolished and I couldn’t accept that,” says Liu. “Afterwards, I came to realize that in China, this wasn’t just me or just artists. All Chinese people confront these kinds of problems, so I brought my art to all different corners of society. Later, I went abroad and saw these weren’t just problems in China … all humans are dealing with these issues.”

Back in Beijing to create his Global Goals piece, Liu sweats as the air conditioner sputters in his studio. In preparation for the piece, Liu’s team will take two pictures: one of him standing in front of the background wearing clothes marked with a numbered grid, and one of the background without him. They then combine the two images so that both Liu’s outline and the background are visible, creating a paint-by-numbers road map for finishing the piece.

The clothing has been painted in advance, but has to be touched up as Liu resumes his position, hands above his head. Assistants periodically bring over a MacBook computer so Liu can check progress and make tweaks. When standing becomes too much, he steps off the podium and rests his arms in front of a fan.

Liu peels a mask of paint from his face after an assistant snaps a photo of his work.Credit: Yuyang Liu for The WorldPost
Liu peels a mask of paint from his face after an assistant snaps a photo of his work.

“I’m sweating like crazy here,” Liu sighs, shoulders aching.

After three hours of smudges, shoulder aches and precision paint dabs, the team is ready for the final photo.

1, 2, 3… Click.

Finally able to break from out of the pose he’s been holding, Liu leaps down from his podium, arms and legs flailing wildly as far out as they’ll go.