Artist 岳敏君 Yue Minjun
Artist Yue Minjun, b.1962, Heilongjiang Province, China, currently lives and works in Beijing. His paintings and sculptures always feature figures with the same laughing face, modeled on his own as if forever painting a self-portrait. Immediately humorous and light-hearted in appearance, Yue’s paintings are more dark in approach, enquiring one to delve deeper into their own contemplation of existence behind the curtains of cultural norms. Rather than being a source of comfort, the smiles on Yue Minjun’s characters embody not an expression of happiness, but forces the viewer to separate the subject from the norm.
Through his adaptation of pop aesthetics, using both the exaggerated expressiveness of cartooning and the stylistic rendering of graphic illustration, Yue depicts his self-portraits (with contorted toothy grins) to weave in China’s tumultuous recent historical experiences into his works.
By the time Yue graduated in 1989 from Hebei Normal University, China was rocked by student-led demonstrations and their suppression on Tiananmen Square that year. “My mood changed at that time,” he said. “I was very down. I realized the gap between reality and the ideal, and I wanted to create my own artistic definition, whereby there could be a meeting with social life and the social environment.”
“The first step,” he added, “was to create a style to express my feelings accurately, starting with something that I knew really well —myself.” The second step was to devise the laugh, which, he said, was inspired by a painting he saw by another Chinese artist, Geng Jianyi, in which a smile is deformed to mean the opposite of what it normally means.
“So I developed this painting where you see someone laughing,” he said. “At first you think he’s happy, but when you look more carefully, there’s something else there. A smile,” Mr. Yue said, “doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”
The smile has been variously interpreted as a sort of joke at the absurdity of it all, or the illusion of happiness in lives inevitably heading toward extinction. Karen Smith, a Beijing expert on Chinese art, suggests that Mr. Yue’s grin is a mask for real feelings of helplessness; and Theorist Li Xianting describes Yue’s work as “a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China.”
“In China there’s a long history of the smile,” Mr. Yue said. “There is the Maitreya Buddha who can tell the future and whose facial expression is a laugh. Normally there’s an inscription saying that you should be optimistic and laugh in the face of reality. There were also paintings during the Cultural Revolution period, those Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing,” he continued. “But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.” Mr. Yue said his smile was in a way a parody of those posters. But, since it’s a self-portrait, it’s also ‘necessarily’ a parody of himself, he added. “I’m not laughing at anybody else, because once you laugh at others, you’ll run into trouble, and can create obstacles,” he said. “This is the way to do it if you want to make a parody of the things that are behind the image.”
The real reason he paints himself is that it gives him a greater margin for freedom of expression, he explained. “It’s not a denial of reality but a questioning of it,” Mr. Yue said of his work in general. “And that laugh — anybody who’s gone through Chinese recent experience would understand it.”
“I’m actually trying to make sense of the world. There’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do.”