Since the mid-1990s, Chinese art has diversified into various genres to keep abreast with a reality governed by perpetual change. Prior to this epoch, Chinese artists had not established a somatic link with their era, but within the space of a decade this has radically changed. One such derivative art movement is that of Cynical Realism, an artistic expression that takes a decidedly derisive viewpoint of modern society, and amongst whose practitioners include Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, Song Yonghong and Liu Xiaodong.
Yue Minjun is a pioneer extraordinaire of the Cynical Realism art movement, yet here is a cynic with a distinctively positive response to adversity; laughter. The now iconic grinning faces that adorn the art of Yue Minjun - often self-portraits of the artist himself - have become synonymous with the burlesque ridicule of contemporary society. But art admirers with a discerning eye will realise that beyond the mockery and jokes there lies a profound conviction; if one peels beneath the narcissistic depths, Yue Minjun's art is steeped in history, religion, culture and Eastern philosophy. The humourous semblance Yue creates through his art is so captivating that one may readily overlook the momentous meaning behind the paintings themselves.
Gweong Gweong go the jets
Yue's 'Gweong Gweong' (Lot 157) from 1993 is the direct evolutionary predecessor of 'Great Solidarity' (Lot 158) and marks one of the most astonishing and ground-breaking works from the artist's career. 'Gweong Gweong' references the Chinese language sound effect for jets, seen here dropping their cargo as they rise over Tian'anmen Square. China's iconic Gate of Heavenly Peace is the backdrop for this scene, with hundreds of uniformly dressed cheerleaders rushing its gates, waiving their orange pom-poms in joyful unison as they descend towards the image of Mao hung above the gate. The jets of course are not dropping bombs, but repeated and identical forms of Yue Minjun's self-image. They are all dressed casually in muted blacks and grays, hands behind their back in polite supplication, eyes clenched tight and laughing hysterically. They seem not even remotely aware of their free fall, but would be laughing no matter what situation they were faced with. The strongly bright blue of the sky is mirrored upon the shorts of the cheerleaders, whilst the orange of the pom-poms sets off the primary red of the Tian'anmen Square building itself. As they only two humane figures of whose features are discernibly visible in the portraiture, the image of Mao and the repeated image of the artist resonant the strongest impact. Despite the relatively miniscule size of Mao's image, it is immediately noticeable. Another striking element is the identical coloured clothing worn by the artist and Mao - they both display the same tonal grey with darkened shadow tinges, the same skin tone and indeed hair chromacity. Yue is here parodying the notion of an icon by replicating his own self-image in contention with that of Mao. While depicting human figures as bombs would seem surrealist - if not cruel - in the extreme, "Gweong Gweong" should be viewed metaphorically. As with soldiers sent to fight wars they don't fully comprehend, Yue views the social world as compelled by forces that are never fully revealed, a situation that forces individuals to adopt superficially sunny disposition whatever their circumstances or however extreme the situation. Despite the sardonic edge of the work, the overall impact is nonetheless giddy and thrilling. There is no violence to the work, only a contagious scene of celebration and excitement. As such, not only does Yue provide insights into the psychological ambiguities and strains felt by his generation struggling to perform in a given social environment; he also provides a viewer with some insight into the seductive aspects of giving oneself over to a collective movement.
Big Swans'Big Swans' (Lot 159) painted in 2003, the most recent work by Yue Minjun offered in our Evening Sale, comprises a dialogue of lost tradition, nostalgia, aggression and eastern symbolism - all bound within the inspirations of classical painting. An immediate striking feature of this artwork is the layout of the composition, whereby Yue has segregated his two 'groups' - four subjects of his replicated self and eight swans - onto opposing ends of the canvas. Such a layout is notably unusual in painting, as it is often the preferred choice of an artist to focus his subjects in a central position. The sought effect of this peculiarity is here realised, as the viewer gains the immediate insight that these two groups are indeed adversaries. To the right of the portrait, the four manifold subjects of Yue snigger whilst pointing their fingers towards the aerial swans, yet this is not a gestured movement and more imitates a child pretending to hold a gun. The absence of real guns adds to the mocking theme and we gain a sense of childish play, yet as with many of Yue's artworks the historical or even horrific settings negate any such innocent connotations. In 1995 Yue created the powerful work 'Execution' (fig.1), from which he drew direct motivation from the scenes created by famous Western artists Picasso, Manet and de Goya (fig 2), recreating them in the contemporary era and adding his own acidulous slant. Here, Yue exemplfies a conflict between Eastern and Western culture. Through the modern re-composition of original famous Western paintings, the original contents are thrown into discordance. In 'Big Swans' we find a similar rendition and rekindling of this earlier work, echoing the mocking conflict and division between the aggressors and those who sufferer.
Eastern symbolismSwans and indeed birds in general are quite a common component in Yue's works, as they represent a purity and nostalgia for tradition. In Chinese symbolism, they are frequently personified as the embodiment of longevity and the swan is seen to present all that is pure and beautiful yet somehow unattainable, as the Chinese idiom recounts "a toad wants to eat swan flesh". The poetic arrangement of 'Big Swans' depicts eight swans in flight against the grinning images of Yue as an illustration of the conflict between the sublime and the ironic.
An idol for the modern world with unexpected inspirations"An idol has a life-force, it often influences our lives and regulates our conduct by setting itself as an example." (Yue Minjun)The art of Yue Minjun is contingent with the use of his own smile as the basic image for his painting and sculpture. With repeated use, this image has become an icon; an intentional aim by Yue who aimed to profane the very notion of an icon by propagating his mocking self-image to obtain such status. Yet the origin and spiritual inspiration for Yue's trademark grimace was far more innocent in its context. The foolish smile that Yue creates is an adulation to both the Taoist and Buddhist philosophies, and to the effigy of Buddha's statue serenely smiling, an image that adorns many temples throughout China (fig. 3). "(The Buddha's) smile is meant to remind people of the need to hold dear the truths of Buddhist teachings in all the goals we have set ourselves in life; to remind us that even in the face of stress and adversity, we should not lose control, not give in to negative feelings"In contradiction to the calm smile of Buddhist imagery, Yue Minjun's heraldry smile appears superficial, mindless and even ridiculous. His inner mouth is hollow and black, echoing the increasing emptiness of the self in the burgeoning modern society. His eyes are closed, as if unwilling to witness the reality before him, choosing instead to laugh in ignorance. The laughter itself is not natural or spontaneous, and Yue adopts this oddity to cast doubt upon common perceptions of reality. Likewise, his subjects appear to have lost their rational judgement, akin to the role of the "fool" found in works of the Flemish painters of the Renaissance period, such as Bosch and Bruegel, who satirized the image of the fool as a demonstrative metaphor for the vulgarity of society. Yue's foolish smile somehow embodies the deconstructing function of post-modernism.
The east is red, the sun is risingPainted in 2000, 'The Sun' (Lot 160) is a strong and visually striking composition of bold palette. The only two background colours that feature in this work - red and yellow - create an allegory of power, authority, joy and achievement in accordance to Chinese cultural connotation. A myriad of Yue's self-image are placed before a vast red sun. They face in the same direction and seem inspired, motivated and appear as though they recite or sing in unison. The former national anthem of communist China was entitled the "March of the Volunteers". However, during the Cultural Revolution the subsequent imprisonment of the anthem's original composer, Tian Han, led to the unofficial adoption a new national anthem; "The East is Red". The lyrics of this song were attributed to Li Youyuan, a farmer from northern Shaanxi who allegedly gained his musical inspiration upon seeing the rising sun. During Mao's government, the song would be played through PA systems in every city and village from dawn to dusk. A broadcast show usually began with the song "The East is Red" and students were obliged to sing the song in unison every morning. Yue's evocation of this scene is evidently a throwback to this period and to the unofficial anthem, in which rhapsody is expressed "The Communist Party is like the sun. Wherever it shines, it is bright. Wherever there is a Communist Party, Hurrah, there the people are liberated!". The year in which Yue created this work is also symbolic of the past conflict and confusion over the official Chinese anthem, as in 2000 a well-known Taiwanese performer was the source of great controversy, when she was banned from touring mainland China after publicly reciting the Chinese national anthem. 'The Sun' also serves as a strongly reflective work of the renewed, unified strength that China felt after the terror and restriction of the communist regime.
Consumerism and a bold palette
The Cultural Revolution had left a spiritual vacuum. The rich cultural history of China, an ancestral tradition that had prospered for many centuries was effectively forsaken. But now in the wake of the Cultural Revolution was a no less oppressive force: Consumerism. Through his artistic endeavours, Yue questions whether the advent of a new alternative is any better than the last.
A signature feature of Yue's individualistic style is his chosen palette of gaudy and ostentatious colour and texture. Reminiscent of commercial media, such chromaticity creates a contrived atmosphere of superficiality, combining basic elements of propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution with those of modern advertising (fig. 4). Akin to the advertising world, the laughing figures Yue projects seem to have more teeth than one could possibly want. The white of his smile is parallel to the expensive smiles of models promoting the whitening capabilities of a toothpaste brand. Colour is a strong focus in advertising, and indeed in Yue's painting. Yue's method is to first apply the colour before completing the details. His love of bright colours is explanatory in his occasional fondness for re-creating classical portraiture into contemporary; "In truth, I don't understand western classical paintings with their dark somber backgrounds. Why those colours? I don't like them at all!". In reflection of his art style, Yue declares that he prefers simplicity. His representation of shadow and light is based on chromatic printing with three basic colours, a method that he expresses is disconcertingly simple yet very effective.
As Yue's style continues to evolve, his trademark grimace remains a constant feature throughout his oeuvre, a self-effacing yet narccistic icon to question the reality and shifting ideology of contemporary society. His resounding message through the overture of his art may be surmised;
"I decided that my laughing faces would serve as a reminder of a better tomorrow....., just as the Maitreya Buddha in the temples do, and would resonate with those individuals who had learned to laugh because they understood that almost any other response was futile" (Yue Minjun, 2006)