Yue Minjun’s first big solo show in Europe at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, is for all intents a Western debut, but goes far beyond an introduction to this accomplished Chinese artist. Instead, running for four months through fall 2012 to spring 2013, the show is a major retrospective. For the first time his main works are shown in one place, so the visual force – the evolution of his work since the 1990s, and the differentiated aesthetics – are presented in one single time and place.
Discussing a Chinese artist or intellectual in the media, it became usual to define his or her relation to the regime of the People’s Republic of China. Giving this information right from the start works as a first approach to the oeuvre. This relationship is considered in only two ways: either pro or against the governing party.
Yet Yue Minjun defies all interpretations of this kind, or any labels given to his work, like the dedication to the “Cynical Realism”. With its popping colors and extraordinary – almost childish seeming subjects – he creates a comic-like art that searches for interpretation outside political issues. Abroad he is a star and peculiarity of Chinese contemporary art.
Minjun, born in the city of Daqing in the area of Heilongjiang, was a worker in the oilfields around his hometown and painted in his free time. Leaving the surreal world of the oilfields, he dedicated himself to painting and sculpting full-time; to create surreal places in his art. In 1985 he began his art studies. After his degree he joined the art scene in Beijing, where he developed the theme that runs like a thread through his oeuvre; laughter. The constant laughter in connection with surreal situations, either tragic or absurd, opens a wide narrative level which allows many interpretations. This is what makes Minjun’s art unseizable, mysterious and offside any intentionality.
The artist from ‘The Land of Smiles’ creates doubles – starting to use the images of his friends, later turns into usage exclusively of his own features – which smile at their beholder in such an absurd and distorted manner they seem as if they wear grotesque masks. The smile seems obsessed and frozen, no matter what situation the protagonists are in. This infinite reproduction of “doppelgänger” generates a conform mass, that is always smiling. Minjun also paints historical scenes, whose symbolic effect becomes distorted by the the protagonist’s laughter.
The ad-infinite reproduced laughter appears absent and engrossed, but not hackneyed. It allows any interpretation: as a caricature of the Chinese society, a vision or status report of a world that drifted into absurdity which cannot be described in rational terms. Pictorial quotations, connections to art history and pop culture – but without having a clear comprehensible direction – that is the concept of Minjun’s work.
TEXT: Moritz Schreiber
Yue Minjun is on show at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, from November 14, 2012 to March 17, 2013.