There’s something about this theater scene that haunts me, while simultaneously providing an eerie comfort of familiarity.  This artist has taken on the theme, at least in my humble interpretation, of alienation, obscurity, or loss of individuality amidst the world at large.  Whether the blunt instrument which erases individuals is industrialization, commercialization, capitalism, communism, the government (or any other -zation or -ism out there), or whether the individuals, ourselves, erase ourselves from the environment.  Perhaps the erasing nullifying factor is the sheer busy-ness of the world.  But apart (or amongst) the grander themes of social protest and societal alienation, I see a much more personal sense of loneliness.  Especially in the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, above.

The artist is Liu Bolin, described, aptly, as the invisible man.

Perhaps he is trying to do with art (or is it performance art?) what Kafka did at the turn of the 20th century.  Although I think Bolin is announcing, subversively (anti-announcing?), a sense that he is made invisible by the government, by society, by culture, whereas Kafka’s alienation, though clearly emerging from industrialization, bureaucracy, and the chaos of World War I, is ultimately personal and private.  His own self-degrading self-alienating self-estranged Withering-Away-ed-ness (it’d be all one word in German, which English can’t really pull off…selbstentfremdungen Verschwindenkeit?). (an interesting article on Kafka)

Contemplating momentarily, after reading the above Kafka article, and making gross comparisons between Kafka’s stories and Liu Bolin’s art, I wondered if they both ask, or beg, the questions, “Where do I belong? Do I belong anywhere?” and “How can I be me?” or, even bleaker, “Is there a me left?” as I am reminded of poor Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), fading away, despised, then unwanted, then unacknowledged, until he fades completely out of existence. (by the way, the German doesn’t directly translate as “insect”, and certainly not “cockroach”.  “Ungezeifer” is much more vague, like a gross pest or bug; the point is not that he became a specific thing, rather that he became something he found disgusting…another Kafka theme)

Many of Kafka’s warped and fatalistic worlds, notably The Trial (Der Prozeß) and The Castle (Das Schloß), focus on the scathing irritation, and dehumanization, that is bureaucracy.  Of which Kafka knew first hand, dealing with actuarial claims.  When I think of futile redundant bureaucracy, I think of Douglas Adams’ satire in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the bureaucratic Vogons, and Patty and Selma at the DMV. (side note: I found some bureaucracy political cartoons, but not any strikingly funny ones.  If anybody has a good one, let me know.)

There is an alienation that comes from Government, as usually depicted in an Orwellian or Huxley sense; an erasing of identity by industrialization, as portrayed by German Expressionists, and losing a sense of self amidst commercialization, endless advertisements, assimilating culture and so on.  On a more personal level, there’s being ostracized, feeling alone in a crowd, and that sense of disconnect one feels riding on a train: there’s people everywhere, but they’re all self-contained, reading newspapers or talking on cell phones or texting or plugged into a laptop, rather than engaging face-to-face with the person sitting next to them.  To take an even more personal step, there’s feeling foreign or invisible to yourself.  What feels more alone, physically alone or alone in a crowd?

I don’t know if it exactly ties into the theme, but two of my favorite books are Neverending Story (not the movie), by Michael Ende, and House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski.  They personify or otherwise somewhat embody Nothingness and Abyss, respectively.  Here, Nothingness and Abyss are not seen as a lack of something, but as a profound presence, if anti-presence.  And, in completely different ways, the books show how this “presence” of nothingness can consume the identity of characters.  (the ever-present Nietzsche quote, “If you gaze long into the abyss, so the abyss gazes also into you.” Beyond Good and Evil)  Or you could compare House of Leaves with The Shining (both King novel and Kubrik movie) on the perhaps instinctual scariness of vast places or vast emptiness.  Perhaps because the vastness of space leaves you aware of your smallness, your insignificance, or your loneliness.

But back to Bolin, the human chameleon…

Liu Bolin, as quoted in the Telegraph, “Some people call me the invisible man, but for me it’s what is not seen in a picture which is really what tells the story.

“After graduating from school I couldn’t find suitable work and I felt there was no place for me in society.

“I experienced the dark side of society, without social relations, and had a feeling that no one cared about me, I felt myself unnecessary in this world.

“From that time, my attitude turned from dependence into revolting against the system.”

Liz, from her “Eli Klein gallery” article, elucidates how Liu Bolin’s art reflects both wider societal tensions and deeply personal emotions.  “Liu’s art is uncompromisingly modern and Chinese, but Chinese in a way that’s discernibly universal, because Liu’s art is a form of social protest against conformism….Liu’s manifesto has a ring of truth, because it speaks to the quiet anguish of every man about our own inadequacies and irrelevance.” (by Liz,Eli Klein Gallery”) Well put.

And now for my favorite Bolin works (after the theater, above, which is my clear favorite):

(for a larger image, click here)

My impression of this piece is that it has a kind of serenity to it.  Perhaps it’s representative of what I think might be Middle Way Buddhist thought, which is that the self exists and is defined by dependence on other things, as opposed to a concept of self independent of everything else.  For example, I define myself in relation to the chair I’m sitting on, which is defined by the ground it rests on and the house in which it resides, which is defined by the street it’s on, and so on, such that everything is dependent upon and connected to everything else.  Perhaps there is a serenity in embracing this concept, recognizing your connection to the world around you.

On the other hand, one of the points of these works is that the individual becomes lost into the background.  You wouldn’t want to merge into the existence of other things so much, that you completely lose your sense of individual self.

But maybe that’s the point.  To strike up a balance somewhere between defining yourself in relation and interconnection to the world around you, but not so much so that you fade into the background and completely lose your individual sense of self.  Balancing both a dependent and independent definition of self.

(for a larger image, click here)

I don’t find this image as aesthetic as some of the other ones, but that’s also part of why I like it.  This invisible man by the road reminds me of whole groups of people (in addition to minorities, which I won’t go into here) who go ignored, unseen, in society.  Perhaps worse, in some ways, than pariahs, because if you are despised, your existence is still acknowledged.  I’m thinking about road-side workers (construction, road survey) who, despite their neon vestments, experience cars whizzing by them as if they didn’t exist.  But namely, I’m thinking about the homeless.

In large cities, I realize that everyday working people almost have to construct blinders not to see the homeless.  Even if you had the most charitable heart in the world, there is no way you could stop and even at least say “hi” to each and every one of them.  Same goes with greeting people on the street.  (I’m reminded of a scene in Crocodile Dundee, coming from a small-town type feel, where everybody knows everybody, to New York, and his futile attempt to greet every person he passes on the street.)  The homeless recede into the background and receive unnamed indigent burials (if “lucky” enough, if they don’t end up in one of those corner-cutting scandals).  It’s because no one claims the bodies and the state has to subsume the cost to bury them, and when the state is running bankrupt, they cut corners regarding the burial of these people, people who lived and died invisibly.

On a somewhat lighter note, regular people (occupations) go unnoticed every day: fast food workers, dishwashers, cashiers.  Perhaps any minimum wage job.  It might be an unfortunate consequence of metropolitan areas.  Especially if there’s a line behind you, you can’t take time to chat with the cashier ringing up your groceries – and s/he probably has a speed quota to maintain.  (One of my pet peeves, though, having worked as a cashier, is customers who are on their cell phone or bluetooth the entire time during the transaction.  At least have the tiny decency to shut off the phone so the cashier can verify your total and give you your change.  I’m not looking for a friendly chat if I have a long line of people, but talking to someone else on your bluetooth the whole time is a bit disrepectful of my existence.  You might as well go to the self check-out machine.)

(larger images here, here, and here)

I also love these and want to find more of them.  I think they are simply titled ‘camouflage’ and a number, as several of the works.  Another note, some works are under the heading “camouflage”, while others are under the heading “hiding” (in the city).  I don’t know how the connotations of the words translate in Chinese, but for me , “hiding” seems more intentional – choosing to remove yourself – whereas “camouflage” may imply craftiness or merely blending in.

Maybe this should be the banner, the emblem, for Occupy Wall Street.

My interpretation: “I’m powerless before eminent domain.”
Something else strikes me about this photograph, the juxtaposition between the barely there, meek and unnoticed, human, and the silent quiescent machine.  Which one is the ignored object? Which one is the useful tool?

Hiding in the City No. 14, White Wine Factory  “another brick in the wall…”

and then there’s this one…

Iron Men, Liu Bolin, 2008, Iron

At the risk of sounding trite, there are a lot of ways to become invisible…

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