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  •  "A caricature could express so much more humanity, and having decided that this would be my ultimate subject, why not create a caricature of myself to convey the stories I wanted to relate to."  — Yue Minjun

    Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun’s satirical self-portraits are pillars of the Cynical Realism movement that originated in 1990s Beijing. Captured in the midst of maniacal laughter, with eyes screwed tightly shut and rows of gleaming enamel-white teeth exposed in a hysterical rictus grin, Yue Minjun’s alter egos embody post-ironic and subversive humour in modern-day Chinese society.

     

    In Altar of Heaven, a likeness of Yue Minjun adopts the bowed gait of generations of manual labourers, upon whose back-breaking efforts ancient and modern civilisations have been constructed. A miniature Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) from the historic Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing balances precariously upon his back. Considered the apex of traditional Chinese architecture, the Temple of Heaven was first built in 1420 during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle, and was visited by the Ming and Qing dynasty Emperors to pray for a good harvest. The Emperor of China was seen as the Son of Heaven and administrator of earthly matters on behalf of the celestial realm, and his twice-yearly visit to the Temple of Heaven was a sacred ritual that began with the Emperor and his retinue clad in special robes and abstaining from eating meat as the procession made its way from the Forbidden City to the Temple. At the climax of this ceremony, the Emperor would personally offer prayers in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the magnificent triple-gabled circular building 36 metres in diameter and 38 metres tall which stood at the centre of the Temple of Heaven. No ordinary Chinese citizens were allowed to view this procession or the ceremony, and smallest of mistakes was believed to foreshadow a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year.

     

     

    Temple of Heaven on an 1898 postcard

     

    Richly decorated with distinctive blue glazed roof tiles (representing Heaven) and perched atop three levels of marble stone in a square-walled enclosure (representing Earth), the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is in fact a completely wooden structure assembled with no nails, a testament to the skill and tenacity of the many nameless and faceless manual workers who built and rebuilt the structure over the centuries as it fell victim to fire, occupation, war and neglect.

     

    Born in 1962 in northeastern China, Yue Minjun’s coming of age during the Cultural Revolution fueled his interest in social and cultural codes in modern China. Growing up in a state-run danwei (‘work commune’), Yue and his family lived life in strict conformity with the commune’s daily schedule and standardised dress code. Yue worked as an electrician until he enrolled in the oil painting department of Hebei Normal University. He returned to Beijing in 1991 to join a colony of artists who had gathered in Yuanmingyuan around the old imperial Summer Palace. With a prevailing sense of deflated idealism, Yue’s trademark alter egos began to emerge in his work, a self-mocking response to the ludicrousness and impossibility of his social situation:

    "The act of giving up is profoundly human. It prevents conflicts with society and allows inner peace to be preserved. By giving up, one becomes carefree and detached. All problems can be resolved with a laugh, and disappear painlessly. In this way one attains an incomparable peace within."  — Yue Minjun

    The Altar of Heaven ties together many potential interpretations, for example the feudal traditions which literally continue to weigh down society, despite the efforts of the Cultural Revolution to destroy the four ‘olds’ - old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture. The modern-day labourer and elite classes remain ever divided despite social change, with inequalities between rural Chinese and their urban peers now exacerbated by, for example, the hukou (户口) system that was intended to facilitate the industrialisation and modernisation of Chinese society.

    • Provenance

      Semarang Gallery, Indonesia
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Prüss & Ochs Gallery, Yue Min Jun: Beijing Ironicals, 2003

Ж163

Altar of Heaven

signed and dated 'yue minjun 2003' lower left; signed, inscribed and dated 'Yue Minjun [in Chinese] 2003 The Year of SARS [in Chinese]' on the reverse
oil on canvas
100 x 80 cm. (39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2003.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000 
€113,000-227,000
$128,000-256,000

Sold for HK$1,260,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2027
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 29 November 2021