The Break Out Star Of The Chinese Contemporary Art Scene Who Laughs At Life’s Awkward Situations – Yue Minjun
“I always found laughter irresistible”Yue Minjun
Best known for his oil paintings depicting himself with his trademark smile, Yue Minjun is widely recognized as one of the break out stars in the Chinese contemporary art scene.
Using both the exaggerated expressiveness of cartooning and the stylistic rendering of graphic illustration, Yue depicts his cloned figures with bizarre pink skin and a maniacal toothy smile. They have been described as “a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China.”
Born in 1962, Yue Minjun graduated from the oil painting department of Hebei Normal University in 1989, the year that authorities cracked down on student protests, most notably in Tiananmen Square. Yue admits that those events and the subsequent changes in Chinese society have had a major effect on his life and work. In fact, the laughing character of his work was developed in response to the changes that China experienced since 1989.
The first laughing face, according to the artist, had complex origins. Back in the 1990s, Geng Jianyi’s four-panel painting The Second State had made a great impression on Yue Minjun. It was a series of four heads that each fill the canvas with a face creased in laughter.
“It made me think of the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the future. His smile is to remind us that even facing stress and adversity, we should not lose control, nor give into negative feelings,” Yue says. “It further alluded to the Taoist belief that a smile was the best way to mediate life’s awkward situations, because to laugh is a more effective – if not more productive – course of action than the unleashing of anger.”
Following the events of 1989, Yue’s generation subsumed in a period of chaos, wracked by contradictions and complex emotions. In this context, up against a society that had been taught to frown upon those who deviated from the norm, the image of a laughing face became insurance to the artist that things would get better: that a future life could be as rewarding and meaningful as the Buddha promised. But it was hard to hold onto that faith, because it was against the reality of the times, which was entirely chaotic and strange. Yue decided that his laughing faces would serve as a reminder of a better tomorrow within his circle just as the Buddha in the temple does, and would resonate with those individuals who had learned to laugh because they understood that almost any other response was a failure.
“Politics is part of my daily life. It is there everyday,” Yue once stated in an interview with CNN. “The paintings reflect it and I can’t escape it. It affects me greatly.”
While the famous smile may remain in some of his work in the future, Yue believes that China could do with slowing the pace of social changes. “Just slow down a bit maybe, so as to let people catch up with the same pace, and so to live in a rather stable way. Going too fast would just make people lose balance, and somehow feel being abandoned or isolated, which is not good to the society as a whole,” he said.