Emerging from the acrid fumes at a steelworks, artist Liu Bolin (劉勃麟) inspects the progress of his latest work — a giant iron fist, poised to punch a hole through modern China.
Weighing more than seven tonnes and 3.6 meters tall, the sculpture will go on show in Paris later this month, as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) visits the country.
“The inspiration for my Iron Fist comes from my reflections on the realities of China,” Liu told AFP.
“People are under pressure from so many things — their living conditions, the political situation, even the air around us.”
Liu is best known globally for his Invisible Man photographs, in which he is meticulously made up and his clothes daubed in camouflage paint so that he blends almost seamlessly into everyday backgrounds, from supermarket shelves and magazine racks to bulldozers.
He is at the forefront of China’s crowded contemporary art scene, and his use of consumerist subjects earned him comparisons with Warhol and his Campbell soup cans.
But he has a different take.
“China as a developing country will encounter a lot of problems, which become the source of artists’ inspirations,” he said. “Many ideas in my creations are from the issues.”
A youthful-looking forty-something with an athletic build, he added: “I’ve been called China’s answer to Andy Warhol because of the commercial images in my work.
“But I didn’t intend to focus on the consumption. Andy was maybe on the positive side, he was praising that society. I pay more attention to food safety in China.”
The country is regularly hit by food scandals, including one that involved tainted baby milk formula that killed six children and sickened 300,000 others.
“What I tried to express was my fears that, when I go to buy a drink, I don’t know if it’s safe,” Liu said.
Eli Klein, a New York gallerist who has shown Liu’s creations for more than six years, describes his work as creating “a beautiful aesthetic and message”.
“It shows that the artistic level of expression permitted in China is much greater than one would think,” he said.
Nonetheless Liu is an admirer of the works of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), the dissident artist who was detained for 81 days in 2011, later had tax evasion charges against him dropped, and is currently denied a passport.
“His works have immeasurable enlightenment and give guidance to Chinese people,” Liu said. “His works have a sharp reflection on society, going straight to the most unspoken point.”
BACK TO BASICS
Iron Fist is a return to Liu’s original calling. From the coastal province of Shandong, he trained as a sculptor and turned to photography after a personal disaster — the 2005 forced demolition of his studio in the Beijing artistic hub of Suojia village. It was just one of the countless buildings flattened as part of China’s frenzied, decades-long urbanization drive.
“I switched from using sculpture to performance and photographs because it was difficult to use sculpture to express my feelings about this,” he explained. “A sculpture would have taken too long to design and construct — during which time, my feelings might have changed. So I chose to disappear into the background instead.”
The foundry where the sculpture was cast is in Tangshan, 150km from the capital, which was flattened by an earthquake in 1976. Beijing puts the official death toll at 242,000, while some outside estimates are as high as 655,000.
The city was rebuilt into a thriving hub for steel and other industries, only to be met with a whole new set of challenges — on the day that AFP met Liu, Tangshan’s air pollution was the highest in China.
“It’s a real cause of anxiety. There’s nowhere to hide,” he said, adding that the smog made many of his compatriots invisible — like him.
“I try to use my works to let people think about what to do and the reasons for living,” he said.
“There is smog in the air, and it’s impossible to have us only inhale, not exhale.”