Few contemporary artists are more known for their self-portraits than Yue Minjun (岳敏君), whose oil paintings of himself as a pink-skinned, laughing figure have placed him as one of the most prominent Chinese artists of his generation.Read More
Born in 1962 in Daqing City, China, Yue Minjun grew up during the Cultural Revolution. He studied at Hebei Normal University during the time of student protests in the 1980s. As a result, Yue Minjun's art presents humorous and simultaneously disturbing depictions of contemporary Chinese life.
Yue Minjun is identified as a leading figure of the Cynical Realism movement of Chinese contemporary art that emerged in the 1990s as a reaction against the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. With an influence from Surrealism and Pop art, proponents of Cynical Realism such as artists Fang Lijun and Liu Wei have employed humour to convey disenchantment with the communist regime. Despite Yue's own critical success during that decade and his signature iconography, however, the Chinese artist himself has denied allegiance to any particular school or movement. He once described his paintings as an attempt to 'make sense of the world', remarking, 'There's nothing cynical or absurd in what I do'. Nevertheless, Yue Minjun has also admitted the massacre's traumatic impact on him; it was the moment the painter realised 'the gap between reality and the ideal' and began developing a visual negotiation that would capture the societal changes in China.
The single most established iconography of Yue Minjun is, without a doubt, the oil paintings depicting himself laughing in various settings. These self-portrait works are open to more than one interpretation. The laughter appears innocuous in some works, such as Yue's doppelgängers catching a ride on cranes in Sky (1997). In Garbage Hill (2003), in contrast, the tower of laughing faces verges on the grotesque and sinister. Yue's self-portraits have been compared to the smiling Maitreya Buddha, who looks into the future and hides reality with laughter. Well-known Chinese art critic Li Xianting described Yue Minjun's self-portraits as 'a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China.' On the other hand, Yue Minjun paintings have been recognised as a parody of idyllic scenes in the Socialist Realist posters of Soviet Russia, which rarely resembled reality. If the laughing figures are parodies, however, as a self-portrait, they are also necessarily parodies of the artist himself. Yue Minjun's hysterical figures stand as subjects of ridicule—himself, the government and the viewer—and their joy becomes a clever disguise for complexities under the surface.
Yue Minjun's work draws on Chinese contemporary history and well-known Western paintings, especially those of Édouard Manet. Execution (1995), arguably Yue's most famous work, bases its composition on the French painter's The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867–1869). Yue Minjun substitutes Maximilian and the firing squad with laughing figures, and the colours of the wall in the background are the same as those at Tiananmen. The gaiety of Yue Minjun's sculptures, along with the absence of guns in the guards' hands, however, subverts the horror of the massacre, as if it were an absurd joke.
Yue Minjun first claimed the international spotlight in the art world in 1999 when he participated in the 48th Venice Biennale. Since then, Yue has exhibited internationally as an artist, participating in numerous museum shows and major exhibition events, including the Gwangju Biennale and Shanghai Biennale, both in 2004. Yue Minjun's first museum show in the US, Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile, took place from October 2007 to January 2008 at the Queens Museum of Art, New York. Yue displayed his oil works at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2008, which drew over half a million visitors. He has since formed an artist partnership with two galleries in Taiwan and Beijing, producing teapot sets.
Selected solo exhibitions since include A-Mazing Laughter of Out Times!, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul (2020); Neo Idolatry, Macau Museum, China (2014); Yue Minjun, Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris (2013); and The Road, Pace Gallery, Beijing (2011).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021