PHILADELPHIA — Art fairs, particularly the mainstream ones like Frieze and Basel, are not somewhere that I fit in. Nonetheless, I’ve been attending London’s Frieze Art Fair for a few years. Mostly out of convenience, since it takes place just a short walk from where I lived and it was something to do. After a few years visiting Frieze, I can probably count about a dozen artists who work there that I can remember with any degree of detail. One of those rare exceptions is Liu Bolin.
You’ve probably seen his work before, even if you don’t remember his name. Bolin is that artist who gets himself painted into scenes so that he is practically invisible at first glance, and then exhibits photographs of those scenes with him hidden somewhere in them. That’s his Hiding In The City series. Once you’ve seen a couple of them, Bolin’s photograph’s are hard to forget.
But plenty of terrible art is hard to forget, and that’s how I originally dismissed Bolin’s work. Basically, it seemed like an artsy version of Where’s Waldo in that the an entire series appeared dependent on a gimmick and the technical wow-factor of Bolin’s skilled assistants hiding him so well.
What I initially dismissed as a reblog-friendly gimmick became the hook to grab viewers and ask them to stay a while longer in front of a piece. Yes, it’s easy to look at a dozen Bolin photographs a minute and get some mild amusement, but if you take a closer look, more important issues arise, such as man’s impact on the world, consumerism and the anonymity of cities.
While Bolin isn’t the only artist addressing these issues (in fact, they are probably some of the most common in contemporary art), he does have a popular appeal. What does it matter if a handful of art-world academics manage to understand a highly-conceptual but perhaps more groundbreaking exhibition in Chelsea, compared to the millions who will be exposed to Bolin’s photos when they are shared over Facebook? Unlike too many pop artists, Bolin has managed to retain a balance, or maybe a synergy, between popular throwaway aesthetics and the conceptual, while keeping the work accessible to a wide audience. In short, Bolin is a great viral artist. His work is designed to go viral, but it isn’t as shallow as a LOLCAT.
Of course, viral ideas don’t come around every day, and advertisers love them, so it should come as little surprise that Bolin’s Hiding In The Cities series has been ripped off by a number of advertisers across countries and trades. Here are all the examples I could find, but I bet there are more out there and more to come.
It seems to have begun with the drug Seroquel and a campaign by Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare from roughly January of this year. Bnet.com first noticed the similarities. This example isn’t particularly blatant, since the Bolin-effect doesn’t take over the entire subject of the ad, and it’s just not that well executed. Nonetheless, the resemblance is striking.
Later in 2010, Tiger Beer got in on the action with their “Know The Not Known” campaign in the UK. Tiger even incorporated a street art/graffiti vibe in the work. If memory serves, there was a “station takeover” at Old Street, right in the heart of London’s street art community, where nearly all the ads in the station were for this campaign.
Amazingly, there are two separate anti-drunk driving ad campaigns that have been inspired by Bolin. First came the slightly humorous ad in Korea for the insurance company AXA Direct, and then the USA’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made a much more serious series of three ads with police hiding Bolin-like around the city, waiting to catch drunk drivers.
Finally, @mediapinta tipped me off about this new ad for Caser Hogar, a Spanish home insurance company.
While Bolin’s style is not completely unique (for example, body artist Emma Hack has been camouflaging people into scenes for the last decade or so), Bolin is the man who has popularized the technique. His photos have spread online like wildfire. I have little doubt that advertisers were looking to Bolin when they designed these campaigns.
An eternal optimist might argue that it’s a good thing when advertisers look to art for inspiration, but advertisers do damage to an artist’s work when they then steal a concept and tack on a brand logo. These ads undermine the seriousness of Bolin’s photographs, simplifying them to nothing but a technical exercise, and then we’re back to my original impression of Bolin’s work as a gimmick to smile about and then forget at a moment’s notice, like an advertisement.
These ads are, most likely, the first of many in a trend of Bolin clones. So if advertisers are going to devalue art, let’s at least be aware of what’s going on. If you have seen any more advertisements “inspired by” Bolin, let everyone know in the comments.