As one of the forefront pioneers of the Cynical Realists group, Yue Minjun is best known for his signature motif of stylized self-portraits, with a gaping grin and eyes closed tight, demonstrating the disillusionment with reality evident to avant-garde painters of the post-1989 generation. Having experienced the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen incident and the demonstrative closing of the 1989 China/Avant-garde Exhibition, artists like Yue Minjun became preoccupied with depicting the ironies of contemporary societies with cynical detachment through stark, direct visual language emblematic of his times.
By the early 1990s, Yue's images of himself quickly became the constant, dominant motif of his works. Wearing frozen smiles, Yue's hysterical figures seem to conceal their heavy burden under a face of forced happiness and at the same time, reflecting their helplessness and cynicism. 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.
The naked proletariat farmer in an arched-back pose depicted in Yue's trademark grimace in the 1997 work The Farmer (Lot 1042), exemplifies the irony and cynicism on poignant socio-political concerns that remains at the core of the artist's works. Like the socialist message instilled in Jean-Francois Millet's famous painting The Gleaners (Fig. 1), the symbolic value and contribution of the workers and peasants that propel the development of an agricultural nation is enlarged to an iconic proportion. The exuberant smile - like those set in guideline by socialist propaganda posters - of Yue's proud, clownish farmer seems to hide the pains of labour, which serves to benefits the collective (Fig. 2).
Depicted with angelic wings of a saintly figure, the anamorphic self-portrait can also be seen as an evolutionary offspring of Yue's earlier works in which big white birds - swans, egrets and cranes - represent purity, freedom, and nostalgia for tradition for the artist (Fig. 3). The absurdist juxtaposition of the romanticized Western cherub or an elegant white bird, with the image of a nude farmer on a heavenly stage of billowy clouds, starkly produces an image of cynical satire. The modern day saint is toiled and reaches into the clouds to reap or sow, but apart from the vaporous form of the clouds, it is a mystery as to what he produces, if any at all. While Yue's farmer grins optimistically at the face of adversity, this exaggerated hilarity ensues to a cold state of madness that is unrelated to one's reality and circumstances, resulting in an image neither pessimistic nor optimistic.
In an artist's statement in 1997, Yue proclaimed "I paint people laughing, whether it is a big laugh, a restrained laugh, a crazy laugh, a near-death laugh or simply laughter about our society: laughter can be about anything. Laughter is a moment when our mind refuses to reason. When we are puzzled by certain things, our mind simply doesn't want to struggle, or perhaps we don't know how to think, therefore we just want to forget it. The 90s is the time when everyone should laugh." As laugher can be about anything, this nihilistic hilarity and sardonic, distanced view on life infuses throughout Yue's works that explores the duality of objectivity and subjectivity.
The spiritual essence of the laughing men is derived from the philosophy of Zhuang Zi. Yue explains that scholars of historical times often displayed a sense of helplessness when faced with the adversities of society, in which most chose to give up. It is a natural state of humanity, and prevents one from conflicting with society yet maintaining inner peace by being nonchalant. The laughing faces also serve as a reminder of a better tomorrow. It is a victory of pure emotions over reasoning that seduces and disarms the viewer while confounding our expectations and desires. Like the role of a "clown" or "fool" in Flemish paintings, Yue's absurdist self-portraits focus on the marginal characters that are blown out of proportion in order to emphasize the grotesque and bizarre, the vulgarity of society, as well as a concern for reality and humanity beyond the superficial. As Yue's style continues to evolve, his trademark grimace, irony and cynicism on contemporary socio-political concerns and the disjuncture and nihilistic aura continue to be at the heart of his practice.
A seminal example of Yue Minjun's work, the cloned caricatures of Yue's self-image is poised in the leisurely activity of river boating, each depicted with broad, tooth-filled smiles. The image is a riddle filled with ambiguity - whether the figures share the scene in relaxed camaraderie or in a regatta-like parade is hard to determine, however, upon closer inspection, we find that the figures hold no oars to determine their bearings. The scene also brings to mind the popular expression of "being in the same boat"; the figures share the same indeterminable fate, being mutually dependant on one another, yet have seemed to abandon individual identities as well as control over their own fates. Their smiles become a form of submission and heedless embrace of indoctrination laid before their paths. Without aim and purpose, they merely drift, floating along to be determined by fate and destiny.
In his works, the artist turned himself into an 'idol' to satirize what he felt an idolatrous society - one that is too easily influenced by images of mass production, whether they be propagandistic images from the communist era or the spectacles of mass media in a consumerist society. The multiplied images demonstrate the power instilled in mass reproduction and the derision of iconic power through promulgating his own image in great volume - to mock the faddishness of contemporary society (Fig. 1). Yue has said, "the appearance of conformity and obedience 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." While the multiplicity implies power of the masses in Boating , the strict formation inherently forms a sense of vulnerability and suspense should the figurative and literal equilibrium of the figures on the boat be disrupted to set off a series of unforeseeable chain reaction. Yue's images appear as a satirical, contorted viewpoint of modern societies and lead us to ponder the existing social structure and the equilibrium between the individual and the masses. In a scene lacking full narrative, Yue's precise and effective use of metaphors and allusion brings full statements of absence.
Yue has explained that, "My preference for vibrant colours of folk culture makes my creations more universal, more popular, more attractive and hence more acceptable to the public. I merely want to articulate a complex issue in a simple but appealing manner." Boating (Lot 1043) features the signature bold, ebullient colour palette of blue, green and red distinctive of his earlier paintings, and carries a sense of self-confidence as well as naivete that remains evident from his early explorative times working in the now-famous Yuan Mingyuan artist village in the early 1990s. Reminiscent of commercial media, such chromaticity creates a contrived atmosphere of superficiality, combining basic elements of propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution with "red, bright and brilliant" colours as a motif, with those of modern advertising. The cropped, diagonal composition carries the boating scene with direction and motion as well as presents the close-up scene like that of a candid snapshot of a skewed, cynical reality.