The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain will present the first major European exhibition dedicated to the Chinese artist Yue Minjun From November 14, 2012 to March 17, 2013.
In the early 1990s Yue Minjun began developing an iconography consisting of figures frozen in enigmatic expressions of laughter that recur almost obsessively throughout his works. Immediately recognizable for their large formats, vivid colors and grotesque style, his paintings express an ironic and disillusioned vision of the social and political situation in contemporary China and of the human condition in the modern world. Even though he is one of the most imitated artists in the world today and extremely successful on the art market, Yue Minjun’s works are rarely exhibited. Featuring nearly 50 paintings from collections around the world, a significant selection of sculptures from the garden at his studio in Beijing, as well as a wide array of drawings that have never been shown to the general public, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to discover the work of this artist who, in spite of his celebrity status, continues to keep a very low profile. Imagined in collaboration with Yue Minjun, the exhibition will reveal the complex, idiosyncratic aesthetic of an oeuvre that defies all interpretation.
The figures painted or sculpted by Yue Minjun are self-portraits displaying the same howl of laughter directed at the face of the world. Replicated ad infinitum, with their wide-open mouths and their closed eyes, these faces are like masks, both grotesque and impenetrable. In spite of their eccentricity, they seem absent in the paintings and their laughter is an enigma, a mirror that reflects whatever anyone wants to see in it: a caricature of the homogenization of Chinese society, a way of putting up with a world that has become absurd or, quite simply, a form of self-derision on the part of the artist. «This stereotyped laugh prohibits any search for intentionality; it puts up a wall, makes any interiority off limits, bars any kind of feeling,»1 writes François Jullien in the catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition. «As nothing more than a series of explosions, it shows that there is nothing to communicate.» Paradoxically enough, the repetitive use
of this laugh never becomes hackneyed. On the contrary, it constantly leads to new pictorial possibilities: depicted alone or reproduced ad infinitum, these figures are portrayed in absurd, comical, poetic or tragic situations. Embracing this interplay between repetition and variation, the paintings become all the more interesting through their inclusion in a larger group in which madness tends to appear more and more mundane as the same face is used over and over again. By presenting Yue Minjun’s ma- jor paintings together in the same space for the first time ever, this exhibition at the Fondation Cartier sheds light on the extraordinary visual power of these works and their gradual evolution since the 1990s.
Born in 1962 in Daqing in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun has become one of the most renowned artists of his generation, a generation profound-
ly marked by the social and politi- cal history of contemporary China. It was while he was working in the oil fields that Yue Minjun, like many other artists in China, started painting as a hobby. In 1985 he began studying art at Hebei Normal University in Shijiazhuang and was able to receive government funding for his studies. After he graduated, he joined the artistic community in Yuan Ming Yuan, a village on the outskirts of Beijing. There he began to define his style and to develop his main theme: laughter. His début as an artist coincided with the emergence of «Cynical Realism,» a new artistic movement that arose in the early 1990s.
After the domination of «Socialist Realism» and the appearance of a «Critical Realism» that accompanied the more open cultural environment of the early 1980s, the incidents in Tian’anmen Square in 1989 led to a profound break in the history of Chinese art. Affectedby the tightening of societal controls, as well as by the opening up of the Chinese economy to the world market, artists offered a more caustic and, above all, less idealistic vision of their society. «That’s why the act of smiling, laughing to mask feelings of helplessness has such significance for my generation.”2 says Yue Minjun about his beginnings as an artist.
Though Yue Minjun has often been considered the leading representative of «Cynical Realism,» the aim of the exhibition is to go beyond this narrow categorization in order to reveal the great complexity and diversity of the aesthetic expressed in his paintings. The artist started out in the 1990s by seeking and exploring a style of his own, choosing his friends as the main theme of his paintings. As time went by, the different faces began to disappear un- til in the end only one was left: Yue Minjun’s face. Against a backdrop of well-known public places in China (such as Tian’anmen Square or the Forbidden City), airplanes, dinosaurs and luxury cars, as well as references to popular Chinese culture and art history, intermingle in compositions in which the artist allows himself complete freedom of expression. The resulting collages and combinations of images provide an assortment of elements that seem to illustrate a scenario, but the artist does not furnish any clues as to what is going on. In his painting Execution, for example, Yue Minjun freely reinterprets The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico painted by Édouard Manet in 1867 by replacing all of the protago- nists in the original scene with smiling figures. Although the artist has always denied any political overtones to this work, the wall in the background unmis- takably resembles the wall around the Forbidden City which is visible from Tian’anmen Square. Is this painting a tribute to Édouard Manet or an ironic pastiche? Is Yue Minjun mocking the events that took place in 1989 by desacralizing them like he desacralizes Manet’s painting? Or is it simply, as he puts it, an expression of his mood at the time he was painting it? In keeping with
the absurdity and the comic nature of the scenes, every sign—like the smile which represents an enigma in itself—can be freely interpreted by the viewer in any way he or she wishes.
This lack of cues can also be found in Yue Minjun’s reproductions of Chinese or Western masterpieces—a little known aspect of his work that will also be featured in this exhibition. He recreates an exact replica of a painting by a famous artist, but removes all of its characters so that nothing is left but the background, like a stage set in a deserted theater. These works reveal lunar or romantic landscapes, curious or unrecognizable architectures while providing an interest- ing contrast to the multitude of works composed exclusively of self-portraits. In this way, viewers are given a direct experience of the artist and the endless variations he is capable of inventing. Like his huge labyrinthine landscapes— another theme developed by the artist— Yue Minjun’s oeuvre is a maze that does not offer any clear or easy way out.
Yue Minjun often says that his inspir- ation comes from the codes associated with certain cartoons, and this can indeed be seen in his use of the same character whose traits are stylized and unchanging, in the depiction of absurd or grotesque situations and in the creation of scenes in which everything seems possible. That is why his works are at once powerful and subtle: the omnipresent yet enigmatic laughter associated with surrealistic, poetic or tragic situations gives rise to a narrative potential and a multiplicity of interpretations that make his paintings as unsettling as they are mysterious.
1 François Jullien, «No Possible Subject» in Yue Minjun, (Paris: Édition Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2012).
2 Quoted from «Yue Minjun Biographie» in Yue Minjun, (Paris: Hanart TZ Gallery/Galerie 75 Faubourg, 2006).