In the art world, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who does not know the name of Yue Minjun. Having progressed from a budding young artist in the 1980s to the Goliath of Chinese Contemporary Art that he has become, people forget that Yue came from a poor background. Faced with the astronomical figures his artwork now demands, they forget the hardships that the artist had to overcome to reach his current standing. Recently, Yue Minjun reopened his solo show at Shanghai LinBART, shedding off his trademark laughing figures to explore the labyrinth of the soul.
By Cecilia Chan
A rtist Yue Minjun will be 53 this year. As one of the most important representatives of the post- 89 New Art movement, Yue, along with Zhang Xiao Gang, Wang Guangyi, and Fang Li Jun are labelled as Chinese art’s “F4”. His works have been collected by the MoMA in San Francisco, the Chicago Architectural Museum, François Mitterrand Museum, and Pusan Art Museum. On October 12th 2007, his painting Execution was auctioned off at Sotheby’s London for 44million RMB and set the record for highest price ever fetched by a Chinese contemporary artist. It is precisely these re- cord-breaking prices that have turned Yue Minjun into one of China’s most controversial artists.
In recent years, several artists, including the ‘89 Art movement group, have repeatedly failed to sell at impor- tant auctions. Their kind of art with “Chinese-character- istics”, which was once seen as a sure-bet, is now moving steadily towards the precipice and it is in this moment of change that Yue turns his focus onto a new style.
Behind the Smile
Since the early 1990s, Yue has created and fine-tuned his distinctive laughing figure into a veritable trademark. With a wide, open-mouthed laugh, closed eyes, and exaggerated movements, often in acidic shades of pink, this figure is an amplification of the artist himself. Through his grinning avatar, Yue places himself in dialogues about the state, history, the relationship between Eastern and Western cultures, sex, economics, materialism, and globalization. In addition to oils, his signature image has been reproduced in sculpture, watercolour, and prints. As an artist who grew up in a time of rapid change in China, he himself has adapted to its many wants and whims. Indeed, one might argue that Yue’s laughing figure is more a marketing strategy than anything else, but its importance cannot be underestimated. Using cynical humor, Yue’s paintings balanced the zeitgeist of modern day anxiety with an Eastern philosophical ethos, and rode at the apex of the rising popularity of contemporary art after the 1990s.
Yue’s motivations start out as ironic, even sarcastic, but its popularity within the Chinese art market has pushed it to the mainstream; what was intended as iconoclastic has itself became iconic. “This society is controlled by so-called smarter, stronger people,” Yue muses, “and we are just running around inside their economic and political mazes.”
When an artist reaches the level that Yue stands at, and com- mands the sort of hair-raising prices that his works do, it is inevitable that even the casual observer will have his or her own opinions about him. There is admiration, joy, criticism, jealousy, and speculation… when an artist is this famous, people often can only see the trappings of fame, and no longer think of him as a normal human being.
Labyrinth of the mind
Yue Minjun has been creating “self portraits” for over 20 years, however the laughing man is but a symbol. While it may stir up a strong reaction, it does not implore the viewer to look deeper into his or her own self. Yue says that these few years he has entered into a “confused” stage of his life, a confusion and uncertainty about traditional culture that is reflected in his maze paintings: “There are creative reasons, and societal reasons. I think that this stage will continue for one or two more decades.” Since 2009, the artist has created the Maze series, Epidermis series, and Overlap series. In addition to shedding the iconic symbolism of his earlier works, Yue’s newer pieces also seem to be addressing his own personal questions and criticisms.
In regards to the Maze series, Yue says that he is painting a “labyrinth with no exit,” its tunnels scattered with traditional Chinese artistic symbols and characters. With the Maze works, Yue questions traditional Chinese art’s pursuit for an otherworldly utopia. “To me, Eastern art holds a feeling of pain and loss. I have tried to convey these feelings through painting, borrowing traditional cultural elements – wood and stone, flowers, birds… Chinese characters transformed into a labyrinth to interpret the inner world.” He will be placed in the text symbol traditional aesthetic construct gardens in such an elegant form and his usual cynical interesting collision of contemporary and traditional cultures do rethink.
“I’m not deliberately changing direction. On consideration, one may discover many dimensions to life, reality, existence, as well as tradition. An artist can express themselves in many different ways and not be limited to one style. Once you have limited yourself, perhaps there will be some linear changes, but it’s possible that you will never see your most profound thoughts.”
In contrast to his time spent painting faces; the surface façade, Yue has now turned to exploring his inner self. The muted tones and Chinese symbolism found in the Maze series may look like the artist is trying to return to tradition, but in reality Yue is doing quite the opposite. Rather than looking back, the maze is the artist’s way of forging ahead. The “confused” state that Yue finds himself in comes with many questions about taste, as well as cultural ideologies and traditional aesthetics. The answers don’t come easy, and Yue resigns himself to the fact that it will take time to figure it all out: “I imagine that after 10 or 20 years in this period of confusion, I will have found a suitable path to proceed down.”