"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." (Yue Minjun, Galerie Enrico Navarra & Hanart TZ Gallery, Paris and Hong Kong, 2006, p. 60 - 61).
As one of the leading figures of China's Cynical Realist painters, Yue has honed his craft through deft and insightful variations on his singular vision: the use of his own satirical, stylized self-image to explore his place in art history as well as the unprecedented transformations taking place in China in his own lifetime. In the earliest works from his career, as with Laugh from 1995 (Lot 1327), Yue explicitly quotes the imagery of mass spectacle that he would have grown up with under communism. In this canvas, four of Yue's figures are packed tightly into the canvas. They stand upright as if in military attention, but their uniforms have been exchanged for matching cartoon t-shirts, eyes clenched tight and laughing joyously. The claustrophobia of the composition denies the viewer any sense of the setting other than the hint of a blue sky. Here we can see the essence of Yue's project, turning 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.
Over time, Yue would experiment with the scenarios in which his figures appeared in increasingly elaborate poses, at times eliminating environmental cues entirely. This evolution coincided with the growing influence of consumerist culture on every day life, with the artist feeling that his earlier absurdist takes on political spectacle were less relevant to this new situation. With his Idols series (Lots 1329 and 1331), Yue produced a number of discreet canvases, each featuring his own image in isolation, viewed from above, wearing nothing but bikini briefs. This was the first major series in which Yue began to explore the potential in manipulating his self-image in isolation. The intense proximity to the figure resembling that of the fetishistic imagery associated with fashion spreads or "candid" images of a Hollywood star. It is as if Yue is posing over and over again for his portfolio as a model, but his increasingly elaborate and unnatural contortions suggesting his desperate desire for approval. Throughout, Yue wryly crops the figures head or limbs, suggesting indeed that he has not succeeded in fully capturing our attention. As with all of the images from the series, Yue paints his self-image in a state of hysterical laughter, his eyes shut to the world. Here there is no overt point of reference for the laugher; the infectious laughter is nonetheless baffling, and, taken collectively, the laughter takes on the aura of a kind of madness. Yue was one of the first artists to adopt a critical and ironic view of contemporary life, one that is expressed in the nihilistic hilarity of his paintings.
Exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 1999, Yue famously installed 15 individual canvases under the title of "Life". These represented an altogether new direction and deepening of his practice; the large-scale canvas Chinese Character Series (Lot 1330) is its direct inheritor. Here Yue maintains the strangely voyeuristic quality to the composition of his earlier "Idols", but has eliminated all color from the work, rendering his figure in greys against a severe, black background. Gone is the figure's boyish hair; instead he is naked, with the shaved head associated with prisoners, monks, or criminals. In this powerful canvas, the figure sits awkwardly crouched, his arms crossed, his head arched upwards and his typically ecstatic gaping laugh seeming equally like a silent scream. Here we see Yue's practice venturing into the ever more conceptually complex, hinted at in the title of the work. He is cortorting his figures into shapes poses that are meant to resemble words from the Chinese language. Such elaborate posturing renders the esoteric association too obscure for the viewer to discern, but for the artist, that is beside the point. He views the social world as compelled by forces that are never fully revealed and, with this canvas, he extends this cynical view beyond his immediate social environment, suggesting that language itself creates a prison in which we must live.
Yue has continued to expand his field of creative and philosophic investigation, further elaborating on man's relationship to nature or to culture writ large. In his forays into nature, Yue has portrayed a distinctly Eastern view, suggesting the ways in which man and his environment are dynamically, harmoniously linked. Indeed, his Avian Flu from 2003 (Lot 1328), displays a decidedly Chinese composition, long and vertical, with the main elements of the canvas appearing in the bottom quadrant. There Yue's figure's head and shoulders appear before a deep sky of billowing clouds. He is a human form, but simultaneously fills the compositional space that might traditionally be held by a mountain form. As such, in his blunt miming gesture becomes all the more devastating, suggestive of Yue's view on the contemporary dynamic between man and nature, so disharmonious that it is bent on its own self-destruction.
Yue's interest in the larger field of humankind's environment has extended also to a broad scope of history. With his bronze warrior sculptures (Lot 1318), Yue parodies the much-vaunted Chinese cultural relics and heritage site, the Terracotta Army from the Han Dynasty, discovered outside Xi'an in 1974. The archeological site uncovered over 8,000 life size soldier-figures, created to symbolically protect the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, their appearances varying only according to rank. Credited as China's first emperor, the first to unify the nation, and the first to undertake the construction of the Great Wall, he was also notoriously brutal, and it has been suggested that human sacrifices were made for every terracotta figure in his tomb. Into this legacy Yue has inserted his blindly laughing figure, standing barefoot in jeans and an undershirt, holding a long staff. While Yue's cynical views are still within the realm of Chinese culture, they are here extended over such a vast expanse of time to suggest that blind abeyance to authority, even at the expense of one's own better judgment, and even one's own life, is a tragic and intrinsic aspect of human nature across all times and places.