“You laugh, and then I laugh, but we’re not really laughing in the same way. With some people, it’s useless to glare at them with looks of hatred – what you have to use is laughter. In fact, sometimes I feel a little perplexed: I wonder if the way I paint might be too easily interpreted as social criticism, too easily oversimplified. Because that wouldn’t exactly be what I want to express.” – Yue Minjun
Yue Minjun’s works, despite their outward depictions of hilarity, often pursue a darker take on reality. His seemingly paradoxical figures reflect the seismic turmoil that the artist’s generation experienced as they emerged from the oppression of China’s Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square to develop in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Yue himself went from an archetypal starving artist in the artist commune of Yuan Ming Yuan outside of Beijing to an international sensation after participating in the 1999 Venice Bienniale.
A quintessential expression of Yue’s singular iconography, The Last 5000 Years intensifies the symbolism of the sardonic rictus grin through multiple reproductions of the image to the point where inevitably one questions the meaning of the broad laughing expression. Whereas one might have initially dismissed the first wide grin as merely silly and frivolous, its manifold, repetitive display is visually arresting because it is unsettling. One side-splitting guffaw is an expression of entertainment, but how could authentic mirth produce exactly the same distorted reaction each time? Art historian and curator Christoph Heinrich has suggested that the expression in Yue’s work be seen in an almost shamanistic way: “His grins and grimaces are weapons; his rows of white teeth suggest readiness for battle. Inner life and personality are barricaded behind eyes squeezed shut as though in a trance, while the bared teeth hold evil spirits at bay” (C. Heinrich, “The Potency of the Mask: Ancient Rites in Contemporary Chinese Art,” Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, p. 77).
The larger-than-life scale of the repeated sculptural figures in their plain, unremarkable clothing further obliterates what humane component the faces might have had. Yet despite the scale of the figures, each is on a thin base rather than a pedestal, for The Last 5000 Years is not simply a cheering tribute to humanity’s achievement in the past five millennia. The openly mocking figures are in a pose that is simultaneously barefoot and relaxed while defensively raising their elbows, and the triangular formation of the figures suggests military tactics. As part of the post-1989 generation, Yue’s work is not merely a cynical reflection on mass culture’s thriving repetition, but a subtle critique of it. Pop Artists such as James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol may have unemotionally documented the rise of commercialization in Western society; Yue’s work embodies his dismay and angst as Chinese society undergoes similar dramatic changes in his lifetime, yet the work sublimates this aggression. “My work is to do with the fundamental agony of being human and the sense of confusion that comes with living in our society,” Yue has said. “…I want people to look at my art and then pause for reflection as they look for luxury handbags.” (E. Tsui, “Yue Minjun: Behind the Painted Smile,” November 2, 2012, Financial Times).