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From Migrants to Performers, Refusès to works of Art

Liu Bolin

ON 10 AUGUST 2013 CATANIA WAS AWAITING THE ARRIVAL OF THREE CRUISE SHIPS, WHICH WOULD BREATHE LIFE INTO THE LOCAL ECONOMY. FATE DECREED, HOWEVER, THAT ON THE NIGHT OF SAN LORENZO, HUNDREDS OF AFRICAN MIGRANTS WOULD REACH THE PLAYA SHORE AT DAWN BEFORE THE TOURISTS DISEMBARKED. THEIR TRAWLER ALSO BROUGHT SIX EGYPTIAN TEENAGERS WHOSE DESTINY WAS EVEN MORE TRAGIC: THEY DIED JUST A FEW YARDS FROM THE SHORE.

Since then, the tramp ship has been docked on the southern pier in the port of Catania, a silent monument to the first, tragic landing of migrants on the Catania coastline. One person who has understood the historical and symbolic value of the wreck is Chinese artist Liu Bolin (b. 1973), who is famous around the world for his camouflage performances, and who last September chose to paint himself in blue against the blue of the boat, Rendering himself invisible. In his work, monuments, forests and Supermarket shelves have merged with the artist’s body. But here, next to the hundreds of other objects and settings, what appears to refuse to disappear is Hope. And indeed The Hope is the name the artist has used to re-baptise the vessel on the pier in Catania: as he sees it, dreams push all human beings to risk their lives in order to improve them.

The Hope thus became the first of six backgrounds chosen by Liu Bolin for his Migrants project, which ran from July to September 2015. That boat, a present-day Raft of the Medusa, sailed in the opposite direction from that of the survivors of the shipwrecked French frigate Méduse, which is shown in Géricault’s painting as off the coast of what is now Mauritania. The North Africans arriving in Sicily trust in their Hope of becoming Europeans. ‘It seemed they were in a hurry to get away, once they’d landed,’ recalls Dario Monteforte, the owner of the Lido Verde and the first Person to rescue the refugees on ‘his’ beach. And it is this coastline that became the Setting for the Chinese artist’s second performance in Catania, Memory Day, a tribute to that midsummer dream. ‘Some people might think the migrants lying on the beach look like corpses,’ says Liu Bolin, ‘but what I wanted was to describe their arrival and the start of their future.’

While the solitary body of the artist, blended with the wreck of The Hope, belongs conceptually to the most famous and oldest of his series, Hiding in the City (2005), the photos depicting migrants lying on the beach are part of Target, which is a development of Hiding in the City. Here, a number of people merge into the landscape, and they are often residents of the place or somehow connected to it. The technique, however, is always the same: meticulously accurate body painting patiently done by several assistants, some of whom are themselves young artists.

The Migrants project took Liu Bolin about two years to prepare. During this time he explored the island of Lampedusa with the help of Boxart, an Italian gallery (www.boxartgallery.com), ultimately discovering the ideal conditions for his performance in Catania. The Community of Sant‘Egidio then proceeded to inform the migrants about the Project.

‘For another work in the Target series here in Sicily’, says the artist, ‘I chose to camouflage some refugees with the surviving boats moored in the port of Catania. It’s hard even to imagine the physical and psychological suffering of these men and women during the trip.’ The performance has the power of a warning, mitigated by an air of confidence. ‘In my work’, says Liu Bolin, ‘the migrants disappear in front of the hell that ferried them to Italy. It’s clear that their disappearance refers to the evanescent line between life and death. Even so, my aim is to focus attention on life.’

The fourth of the six photos in the project had the new Europeans in a pose that recalls the history of Italian art, and particularly that of the Renaissance. After painting them with the blue of the European Union flag, the artist recalls, ‘I asked them to make a gesture that had to do with spirituality. Their religion, ethnicity, or country of origin wasn‘t important, for they were all camouflaged in the same monochrome colour: Europe Blue. I wanted to Show how change is possible, to illustrate how this generation of Africans can go from one continent to another and live happily.’ The immediate association for the viewer here is a contemporary, secular Pietà.

The penultimate photo doesn‘t make the bodies of the African migrants invisible, but rather elevates their roots, with an almost tribal form of body-painting, which makes the white of the word Future stand out on their bare torsos. The last of the six photos in Migrants is part of the new Hiding in the City series, in which the artist has his photo taken against the backdrops of the landscape. Once again, the location is the port of Catania, this time with another fishing boat, the Giammarco AU 1168, against which Liu Bolin’s body impassively stands. The boat happens to have an Italian name, which also happens to be the title of the photograph. It‘s as though he‘s trying to tell us we should firmly believe in a better future which will save everyone from the uncertainty of their destiny.

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Beatrice Benedetti is a curator and journalist. Her recent publications include the volume Emilio Isgrò. Come difendersi dall’arte e dalla pioggia (Maretti, 2013) and the catalogue Emilio Isgrò, Model Italy, 2013-1964 (Electa, 2013) for the exhibition at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. In 2015 she and Paola Marini curated The Wonders of the Year 2000 at the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona. Since 2006 she has been the artistic director of Boxart, which was founded in Verona in 1995 by Giorgio Gaburro.

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