In the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, across the street from the Convention Center where Art Basel Miami Beach was going down, my eyes did not deceive me: Liu Bolin, the artist who made a name for himself in the mid-2000s with his “Hiding in the City” series, was stationed there, in the flesh, up against dozens of Ruinart champagne bottles filled with colored water.
As soon as I pointed my phone camera pointed at him, Liu became almost indistinguishable from the bottles. It’s a great bit of optical art.
But the work is much more than optical art. The Invisible Man originated in 2005, when the artist village where he once had a studio was tagged for demolition in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Liu fought back, painting himself to blend in with the buildings’ wreckage as a metaphor for the silenced invisibility of the artist in Chinese society.
Known popularly as the “Invisible Man” series, his “Hiding in the City” work is, ironically, what made Liu a very visible artist who has presented his photographs all over the world in places like Rome, Moscow, Caracas, and Pyongyang.
The performance at Art Basel Miami Beach—a sort of live production of one of his photographs—was part of a lengthy collaboration between the 45-year-old artist and the 289-year-old champagne house. For the collaboration, Liu held a residency at Ruinart’s winery in Reims, a city in the Champagne region of France, where he photographed himself and the workers blended into various locations around the winery—in the grape fields, the chalk pits in the cellars, and in front of Art Nouveau advertising posters from 1896 by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.
The Mucha posters are the first works of art commissioned by Ruinart (though it’s believed that the 1735 Nicolas Lancret painting “Luncheon Party in the Park,” commissioned by Louis XV, includes the depiction of a glass of Ruinart being poured from a decanter), but far from the last. Artists and designers such as Erwin Olaf, Georgia Russell, and Piet Hein Eek have created works for Ruinart in recent years. However, it’s the historical aspect of the champagne company that inspired Liu.
“That’s what I really like about the collaboration, is the historical aspect of it being such an important part of European history—not just the art, but of history in general as the oldest champagne,” Liu told me before the performance. “Ruinart workers are very passionate and happy about their work. It seems they enjoy it very much, and I like that—it seems like a great environment to be in.”
Liu has put the spotlight on workers in the past—his series of photographs called “Target” is much like the “Invisible Man” series, but with Liu training the photograph on others he feels might need to be turned invisible in order to be seen.
“The workers are the soul of this piece,” Liu said. “I enjoyed them, but also, they enjoyed the fact that they could participate, and be a part of this piece.
As for this particular performance, Liu said that there is an environmental aspect.
“I was doing a show in Japan, and I noticed all the champagne bottles that were consumed, so I got the idea after seeing the amount of bottles, instead of throwing them out, using them,” he said. “I decided to do that in each place I go to and use that as a backdrop for my piece [for Ruinart]. The colors I chose are like a rainbow. It’s a sense of hope or promise for the future. [The rainbow] represents a future feeling.”
In addition to the photographs and performances, which were previously presented at Art Basel Hong Kong and Frieze in New York and London, Liu has created a limited edition coffret gift box meant to hold a magnum of Ruinart. The coffret is made from a U.S. Army jacket much like the jackets Liu uses in his photographs.
“It’s a mistake,” he told me, laughing, about the use of American military surplus. “I didn’t really want to use them. I wanted to use the uniform of the Chinese soldier. But when I bought them online, a lot of them had U.S. Army symbols. I don’t know why. About six months ago, I did a performance in Pyongyang in North Korea, so I had to take off every symbol of the U.S. Army.”
Liu will return to the U.S. for Frieze’s inaugural Los Angeles fair, but for now, he’s headed back to his studio in Beijing to prepare for a full slate of exhibitions in Hong Kong, Israel, Australia, and Paris. The Ruinart collaboration will culminate at Frieze L.A., before making their way to the winery, where they’ll be on display with the other works Ruinart has commissioned over the years.
For Liu, the gulf between the art they’ve commissioned and the champagne itself isn’t so far apart.
“The earliest forms of art were making things with your hands, and making champagne is not too different,” said Liu. “I drink it, and I like it, but the most important thing about champagne is that it brings people together. That’s what I like, the feeling of being with people who are enjoying my exhibits.”