Golden Era
titled, signed and dated 'Golden Era Yuan Yuan 2015', signed and dated in Chinese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
170 x 200 cm. (66 7/8 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2015
Edouard Malingue Gallery
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Asia
Edouard Malingue Gallery, Yuan Yuan, Hong Kong, 2016. (illustrated, pp. 186, 187).
Edouard Malingue Gallery, Paris, France, Yuan Yuan: There is No There There, 21 October - 5 December 2015.

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

The history of Chinese contemporary art began during the 1990s following the nation’s economic reform policy. At the time, artists were attempting to express the struggles and anxieties that people faced during this new era of change through their art. As a result, a considerable amount of figurative works were produced responding to these themes, such as Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family , Yue Minjun’s laughing figures, Yu Youhan and Li Shan’s Mao portraits, and Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series. After the turn of the millennium, there was a tremendous change in Chinese painting both in terms of subject matter and concept. Artists who were born in the 1970s such as Liu Wei, Huang Yuxing, and Wang Guangle were more concerned with painting geometric abstraction, colour combinations, and exploring the nature of temporality — the generation to which Yuan Yuan belongs. Born in Zhejiang, he graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, which is often recognised as the cradle of Chinese modern art. His painting practice also departs from the representational and figurative subject matters that were popular in the 1990s. He found a new way to express the presence of people and their relationships with history.

Yuan Yuan painted Golden Era (Lot 37) in 2015. The work depicts the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles in France; the painting is so rich in details that it creates the illusion of being present in the room. In this painting the Hall of Mirrors is devoid of people, which is a near-impossible occurrence since in reality it is packed with tourists every day. Extravagant scenes of Louis XV hosting costume balls in the 17th century cannot be found in Yuan Yuan’s paintings. Instead, looking back at Yuan Yuan’s artistic output over the last decade, it is apparent that a sense of emptiness, sombreness, and lethargy runs throughout his body of work. When viewers encounter Yuan Yuan’s paintings, they have the distinct feeling that they are observing an experiment in a laboratory that cannot be disturbed. This quietude gives viewers the mental space to directly examine how people, spatial contexts, time, and history are related to each other.

Fastidious in expressing minute details, Yuan Yuan’s works prove to be exceptionally enjoyable for extended viewing. In his early works, the artist was obsessed with rendering every single mosaic piece in the interior spaces that he was depicting. Viewers can feel the artist’s power of concentration and his fascination with copying repetitive motif. In recent years, Yuan Yuan’s focus has shifted to the exploration of reflective surfaces. The architectural features seen in The Other Side series are reflections in mirrors. Regular mirrors report reality in the physical world objectively. However, Yuan Yuan’s mirrored images are filtered with subjectivity. They have been altered and reassembled. As such, this seemingly realistic picture is actually a surrealistic enterprise in which the audience is lost between what is real and what is not.

Captured in the Hall of Mirrors in Golden Era , the reflection shows the dazzling splendour of antique chandeliers. Yet, in front of the mirror, the chandeliers are wrapped in heavy fabric suspended from the ceiling awkwardly like giant bats. This visual contradiction is reminiscent of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental work Wrapped Trees . Fabric reassigns the materiality of the trees and their relationship with the environment. The fabric in Yuan Yuan’s painting similarly severs the rational relationship between the chandeliers and their reflections. The artist guides the viewers to consider the issue at hand from an oblique angle. With this theatre of the absurd, Yuan Yuan compels us to reexamine the former glory of the French monarch.

Yuan Yuan’s meticulous composition and his treatment of superimposing subjectivity on objective reality is akin to the style of famed German photographic artist Andreas Gursky. In his work 99 Cent , Gursky digitally doctored an ordinary supermarket into a space that is structurally and aesthetically immaculate. The degree of perfection is comparable to a palatial interior where viewers can savour every minuscule detail. Both 99 Cent and Golden Era use architectural interiors as the foundation of their compositions. The former elevates a public space with enchanting colours. Conversely, the latter extinguishes the halo of a historically exalted place. Both works perform a surrealistic transformation for the viewers by suspending the sense of certainty in objective reality.

When viewers are being bedazzled by the illusion created by Yuan Yuan’s painting, will they notice that the mirror in the painting also reflects the state of contemporary society? Be it the “fragrant grass and fabulous falling petals” described in Tang Dynasty poet Yuanming’s prose piece Peach Blossom Spring , or the utopia described by Plato, humans are always searching for a world that is better than reality. In the information age, virtual reality provides us with an enormous phantasmic theme park, such is the one reflected in the mirrors of Golden Era. Ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s postulation in his butterfly dream parable inspired centuries of discussions on the nature of reality. Today, Yuan Yuan poses a philosophical question with this illusionary painting: in this technologically advanced era, how does one distinguish what is real and what is virtual? Or perhaps our lives are but a reverie?

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