What remains when our faith in the institutions around us is shattered? Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s work gives an answer.
Yue Minjun was born in the town of Daqing, China in 1962. His parents were nomadic oil field workers and he seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, but a brush with art during his high school years planted a seed in his soul. Minjun, like many others of his generation, was working hard to survive. He became an electrician at an oil firm while a teenager and later took a job drilling for oil on deep sea rigs, all the while indulging in his passion for painting. He would go for days without sleep, balancing his career with his calling. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone in China; at least his art gave him a creative outlet for his angst.
In April 1989, the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died. He had been a liberal voice against hardliners controlling the government, a champion of young people fed up with inflation, corruption and limited opportunities. Students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn him and to call for the freedoms for which he stood. Over the course of the next seven weeks, around a million people assembled, drawing the attention of the international community. Panicked at the prospect of losing control and at smaller protests breaking out across the country, the Chinese government declared martial law. The world watched in horror as 300,000 troops with assault rifles and tanks killed unarmed civilians. Images streamed over western television of young men and women standing bravely before tanks that rolled mercilessly over them, crushing their bodies and the hopes of Chinese youth. But that spirit is far more resilient than anyone expected.
Minjun had grown up relying on police and the state for a sense of order and protection, but the Tiananmen Square Massacre and subsequent crackdowns shattered his faith in the government, as well as the idea that he could continue his former lifestyle. In 1990, he quit his job and moved to Hongmiao, an artist’s collective in Beijing, where he began to paint and sculpt with a vengeance. Most of his output consists of images or figures of himself laughing, wide-mouthed, toothy, grinning at the edge of madness. The biting irony of this smiling figure who holds pain in his heart has great resonance in China and beyond, making Minjun an artistic and commercial success.
The meaning of his grin is intentionally vague. Is it frivolous escapism or is it a confrontational espousal of emotion from a man trained at a young age to mask his feelings? Minjun has been labelled a leader of the Cynical Realism movement, a group of Chinese artists who mock themselves and society to make a point. He does not accept the label. Doubtless there is an element of ridicule and mockery in his work, and he certainly attacks convention and social norms, but, I think that, rather than depicting insincerity or even cynicism, Minjun’s figures depict a taunting resilience. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m still here and I’m still laughing,” the artistic equivalent of thumbing the nose or flipping the bird. I admire his boldness immensely.
Despite his fame, Minjun keeps a relatively low profile, living in the Songzhuang art colony, the most famous and largest artistic community in Beijing. He has shown work all over the globe, from Singapore and China to London, Vancouver and the United States.
He’s still laughing.