In real life, Silin Liu leads a fairly pedestrian life as an artist in Beijing. In her photos, she is Celine Liu, a glamorous socialite who chats with world leaders, mingles with celebrities, and hobnobs with intellectuals. With a few costumes, an iPhone, and ridiculously good Photoshop skills, Liu makes herself a 20th-century icon.
The playful, nostalgic photos in her ongoing series I’m Everywhere celebrate the idea that, in the era of digital manipulation, you can be whomever you like. “Celine Liu is who I desire to be, but the audience thinks it is actually me,” she says.
Liu grew up admiring the celebrities she saw on TV and dreaming of stardom, but she was too much a wallflower to ever perform for a crowd. Instead, she tinkered with Photoshop, inserting herself into old family photos. Liu turned her attention to historical images in 2012 when she happened upon a photograph of Soong Mei-ling, the wife of President Chiang Kai-shek, posing alongside a Chinese general. Liu replaced the general with herself. “[Mei-ling] is a sign of the new woman in old China, a symbol of brilliance, elegance, and wealth,” she says.
It was too much fun to stop. Liu has since downloaded and manipulated 30 photos of people like Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Simone de Beauvoir. After selecting a photo and meticulously planning the image she wants, Liu rummages through her parents’ closet for a costume or buys something online. A friend often snaps the photo with Liu’s iPhone, or she uses a self-timer if no one’s available. Then she painstakingly combines her photo and the historic image in Photoshop. The entire process can take up to four weeks. “I imagine, I direct, I play, I photograph,” she says. “I control all the details, and I don’t need to speak to anybody.”
The photos in I’m Everywhere have the relaxed feel of snapshots. The fact that most of the people in them are westerners makes Liu’s casual familiarity as a young Chinese woman even more striking. She rewrites history simply by being there. And her work has fooled more than a few people on Facebook and other social media.
Of course, Liu’s images aren’t any less authentic than the carefully curated images you see on Instagram these days. “It’s a show,” Liu says. In the age of social media, everyone’s famous and nothing is quite what it seems.