As one of the leaders of the Chinese avant-garde, Yue Minjun is best recognized for the signature motif of his works: his stylized self-portrait, with a gaping grin and eyes closed tight, appearing in cortorted and absurdist scenarios that point to Yue's satirical and often cynical worldview.
By the early 1990s, Yue's image of himself quickly became the dominant motif of his works. The image is not a self-portrait in any conventional sense; rather, it is an exaggerated and satirical form that gathers meaning in repetition and in the world's Yue imagines. Yue first began experimenting with this motif as a manifestation of his own disillusionment with the credibility of surface realities in modern society, a feeling that was heightened in the immediate aftermath of the Tian'anmen Square tragedy in 1989. In essence, the artist turned himself into an 'idol' to satirize what he felt was an idolatrous society, one that is too easily influenced by images of mass production, whether they be the propagandistic images and spectacles of the communist era or the mass media images of a consumerist society. Yue has said, "the appearance of conformity and abeyance [is] so often acted without conviction of purpose. I chose to depict the same figure, similar stance, and same features, to highlight the inanity of such parades. To use one figure in such a manner lent them the appearance of cartoon caricatures: satirizing humanity to tell a particular story"1
Painted in 1996, Idol Series, No. 007, 008, 014 (Lot 1052) can be viewed as the experimental works of Yue Minjun's exceptional installation of fifteen separate paintings, Life (fig. 1), first exhibited in the 48th Venice Biennale in1999, shows the artist taking his original concept to a new conceptual level. Each painting depicts Yue's self-image in a different, contorted and absurdist positions, contortions that represent the artist attempting to re-shape the human figure to represent individual written ideograms from the Chinese written language. The angular and curved body parts reflect the essence of the dots, lines, and curvature strokes that form the basic components to any Chinese character.
While it remains difficult to identify the individual "word" embedded in each pose, what is most striking about each pose is the aura of submission and isolation inherent to each canvas. In every panel, the figure is lower to the ground, spot lit and viewed from above, often with his back or knees pressing awkwardly against the floor. The arms are almost always disconcertingly restricted and by an unseen, dominating force, while the figure retains his disconcertingly gleeful expression. Throughout Yue's works, the laughing figure is exaggerated to such an extent that it becomes clear that the hilarity verges on a kind of madness, its source unrelated to the reality of one's circumstances. By equating the human body with language itself, Yue renders the body both a signifier of meaning and a medium subject to manipulation and control. This is especially the case in China where, historically, language has been the site of an incredible history of cultural value and knowledge. At the same time, language and writing became a contested and potentially controversial medium and an object of much scrutiny and control. In this context, Idol Series represents one of Yue's most profound and sophisticated statements as an artist, mocking existence itself as a futile series of hollow, tortured, pre-determined gestures. It is precisely Yue's deceptively simple artistic idiom, combined with his rigorous and efficient use of metaphor and allusion, which have earned him his status as one of the leading figures of contemporary Chinese avant-garde art.
In the road of subversion, Yue's artistic concept and practice continue to develop. The painter Yue Minjun concerns about the question of painting noumenon that means the subjective misrepresentation of the masterpieces of oil painting. On the basis of the research of Western or Chinese classical masterpieces of oil painting, he creates a new painting language. He has changed subjectively their integrity on the basis of copying the origin. Yue's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window 2 (Lot 1051) is originated from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted by Jan Vermeer in Holland in circa 1657-1659 (fig. 2). The paintings without events and plots have created the sense of absence and a new scene. The absence of the figure tempts audience to recover the integrity of the pictures in the relationships of history and reality, memory and imagination, reality and fiction, picture and concept. His paintings have the dual meanings of objectivity and subjectivity, extending the new language and changing the audience's appreciation habits by borrowing the images of the art history. His works have proved Jean Baudrillard's statement about Post-modernism that the history has ended and the present is an era of post-history without meaning. People cannot find any meaning in post-history. Post-modernism is neither optimism nor pessimism, but a game of the existed things which have been destroyed.