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  • Provenance

    Arario Gallery, Beijing

  • Exhibited

    Shenzhen, He Xiangning Art Museum, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works: 2004-2006, 3 June-11 June 2006
    Cheonan, Arario Gallery, Absolute Images: Chinese Contemporary Art, 28 June-20 August 2006

  • Literature

    Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, exh. cat., He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2006, pp. 116-117 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    The fixed grin of Yue Minjun is an icon of contemporary China. Instantly recognizable, its uncanny and relentless repetition throughout his oeuvre defies easy analysis. Our initial impression is one of humour or levity, but the smile, seen in endless series, becomes a mask rather than revealing true emotion; the expressive loses all expression, and we are faced with a compelling, hysterical blankness.

    Yue was raised in socialist China, working on oil platforms; he later moved to the Songzhuang artists’ colony in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. ‘There was no place for individual ambition within the socialist machine. For this reason, most people could not conceive of stepping outside the confines of the State structure; less still to move to Yuanmingyuan with the aim of becoming an independent artist. Yet for some reason this is exactly what I felt compelled to do.’ (Yue Minjun in Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, exh. cat., Shenzhen: He Xiangning Art Museum, 2006, p.18).

    He first came to prominence in the late 1980s, among a new wave of artists who had seen the end of the Cultural Revolution and emerged vividly from the monolith of Social Realism. In 1992 critic Li Xianting coined the term ‘Cynical Realism’ to describe this movement, characterised by irony and disenchantment in the face of China’s dizzying social and economic change. Yue himself rejects the label: ‘I’m actually trying to make sense of the world …There’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do.’ (Richard Bernstein, ‘An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?’, New York Times, 13 November 2007).

    The artist explains that ‘In China there’s a long history of the smile. 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. But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.’ (Yue Minjin in Richard Bernstein, ‘An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?’, New York Times, 13 November 2007). There is a sense, then, in which the smile is a coping strategy, a cheerfully aphoristic response to the challenges of existence; but as Yue’s comment on ‘Soviet-style posters’ implies, it can also become an act of denial and concealment in enforced uniformity: this was the reality of living in totalitarian China.

    Under Mao, art existed only in the service of politics. It was employed to promote ideas, shape public opinion and give moral instruction. Mao’s image was the only one that was always safe to paint. The workers’ faces we see in Socialist Realist paintings are in fact hardly ‘realistic,’ but have an oddly cartoonish quality: improbably white teeth, faces gleaming with utopian health and vigour. Yue has taken this stylistic standard and fashioned from it the lunatic idol of his art. He began by painting his friends, before turning the parodic smile upon himself. Over the years, his faces have become pinker, shinier, more hairless. ‘It’s true, what I paint is not very beautiful, but the beautiful things made by other people nauseate me even more.’ (Yue Minjun in conversation with Shen Zhong, Yue Minjun: L’Ombre du Fou Rire, exh. cat., Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2013, p.57). A sense of profound artificiality pervades: this is no depiction of real human subjects, but a serial rictus born of propaganda and advertising. Yue’s iterated selves are denied subjective identities and aspirations. They are trapped in the gleaming, collective lockjaw of a fixed system.

    Over the past twenty-five years a keen global market for Chinese contemporary art has developed. The authorities are alert to the industry’s prospects for cultural and financial capital, so tolerate some of its more ideologically troublesome content – though prominent figures such as Zhang Huan and Ai Weiwei still face regular harassment. This uneasy balance accompanies a greater commercialisation of art and of Chinese society at large, and leaves many artists haunted by a sense of dissatisfaction, loss and wounded idealism. The commercial success of Yue’s work can hardly be ignored: his 1995 painting Execution sold for £2.9 million in 2007, making it at the time the most expensive contemporary Chinese artwork ever sold. In China he is a celebrity, and aesthetic imitations and bootleg versions of his work are readily available in Beijing street markets. This does not appear to bother Yue. ‘What you see on the streets is a second incarnation of my work … To copy in China is a normal practice, so I have no objection.’ (Nazanin Lankarani, ‘The Many Faces of Yue Minjun,’ New York Times, 5 December 2012). When the reproduction of his images is thus democratised, they become a source of joy for others that seemingly transcends their otherwise claustrophobic narrative of serialisation.

    Perhaps remarkably for an art so fixated on one motif, what François Jullien calls Yue’s ‘non-face faces’ (François Jullien, ‘No Possible Subject,’ Yue Minjun: L’Ombre du Fou Rire, exh. cat., Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2013, p.33) prove adaptable to a variety of nuanced social commentaries. It is limiting to assume that all Chinese contemporary art should be read as coded political subversion. The present lot, Yue says, highlights the distortion of Chinese culture through televisual media. The martial art of Kung fu began as an ‘athletic dance,’ not a discipline of fighting. ‘Through time this dance was reconfigured as a fighting art, primarily for reasons of self-preservation and survival, because it represented to the Chinese people a source of national strength and power. Today, against the pre-eminent power of the glamour of action films and on-screen violence, the essence of Kung fu has been distorted. I decided to make a parody of the animal and bird postures that originally inspired the “dance.” The contortions to which I subject the figures highlight how far the art has come from the innocence of its roots.’ (Yue Minjun in Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, exh. cat., Shenzhen: He Xiangning Art Museum, 2006, p.22).

    If this seems glib, an art straying from ‘the innocence of its roots’ also mirrors the crushed optimism of Yue and his Cynical Realist contemporaries after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: an event that saw artist Sheng Qi sever his own finger in protest. Here we see two of Yue’s figures aping the poses of swans, while the birds themselves float impassive and eerily static, like factory-made rubber ducks. From a series titled Free and at Leisure, the image invites us to wonder how ‘free’ the performers really are. Their body language is a paroxysm of joyful abandonment: their beaming faces are stark voids. The allusive dance remains oddly human in its absence of humanity, and is shot through with a sense of haunting melancholy.



Free at Leisure No. 11

oil on canvas
220 x 300.7 cm (86 5/8 x 118 3/8 in.)
Signed and dated 'yue minjun 2004' lower left. Signed and dated in Chinese on the reverse.

£500,000 - 700,000 

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm