Icons of Irony: The Grinning Faces of Yue Minjun

What remains when our faith in the institutions around us is shattered? Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s work gives an answer.

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

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.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995 Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995
Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

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.

Amaze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun image © Wee Sen Goh with CCLicense

Part of A-Maze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun, Vancouver
image © Wee Sen Goh
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Cameron Norman with CCLicense

A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver © Cameron Norman with CCLicense

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.

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005 via the Saatchi Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005
via the Saatchi Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

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.


Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Play of Shadows: Two Forms of Asian Shadow Theater and Their Descendants

Chengdu Shadow Play © monsterboox with CCLicense

Chinese Shadow Play
© monsterboox with CCLicense

In much of Asia there is a tradition of shadow theater, also called shadow puppetry or shadow play, an ancient art in which characters are fashioned from leather or paper and positioned between a light source and a translucent scrim. The audience watches the story unfold from the other side of the scrim.

There are many branches of shadow puppetry. One of the oldest is the pí ying xì of China, which has its origins in the royal court and features a whiter and more refined scrim than many of the other traditions. This allows for more radiant color to show through. Allegedly created to placate an Emperor who had lost his favorite concubine, the tradition contains a wide variety of stories: myths, histories, morality plays and animal fables. Pí ying xì was banned for a time under communist rule because it was seen as a vehicle for religion, but it never died out and is now seen as an art that is quintessentially Chinese. Music videos and animations like Su Yang’s Phoenix, which Synkroniciti has spoken about here, rely heavily on the style and images from this beautiful art form. Here is a short film from a series called Hello China, which will give you a playful taste of this glorious art.

Video via radio86channel on YouTube.

From China, the art form spread westward with the Mongols and, much later, with explorers who brought it to France, where it would be known as ombres chinoises, or Chinese shadows. These shows were performed at various locales, including the famous Le Chat Noir in Paris, and there are a number of such troupes still in existence today. This is Jean de la Fontaine’s fable of a frog who wants to be as big as an ox as told by Le Theatre des Ombres.  Hilarious and charming!

Video via letheatredesombres on YouTube.


The Sacrifice of Bima, Balinese Wayang Kulit
© Gustavo Thomas with CCLicense

The Chinese tradition contrasts sharply with the rougher style which developed in Indonesia and Malaysia, known as wayang kulit, or shadow leather. The characters are much darker, truly looking like shadows due to a thicker, often yellowish, scrim and, sometimes, flickering torchlight. They can be easily identified by their fanciful faces, terrifying, ridiculous, or godlike, but never completely human. Their roots lie in the uneasy presence and influence of two religious traditions: the Hindu, with many gods and monsters, and the Islamic, which, in its most conservative forms, forbids the representation of human and animal face and form. These influences have contributed to the imaginative and non-representational of wayang. Here is a taste of traditional Javanese wayang from the Théâtre du Soleil at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, Paris. The gamelan accompaniment is quite raucous, but certainly holds the attention. I doubt anyone could sleep through a performance like this.

Video via maisonculturesmonde on YouTube.

Although television is eclipsing shadow puppetry as an entertainment in urban areas, the characters remain important. Recent campaigns for health and wellness and a promotion for Vicks cough drops in Indonesia have translated these images into animation. Figures created over centuries of tradition are familiar and trustworthy in the light of urbanization and technological advances.

Balinese shadow puppets  © Howard Walfish with CCLicense

Balinese shadow puppets
© Howard Walfish with CCLicense

The contemporary art of shadow dance theater has also been influenced by the images of wayang kulit, as is revealed by this wonderful shadow dance performance from Indonesia, telling stories from the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The first concerns the birth of the Pandavas, heroic brothers born from Pandu, who was cursed for killing a white stag who was a wizard in disguise, and his two wives Kunti and Madri. The second is the birth of the hero Gatot kaça, or Jug Head, a story which implies the dangers of war. The last is about the twins, Nakula and Sadewa, and protecting nature from evil. Incredibly beautiful, this is an exciting blending of styles. Traditional art is wonderful of itself, and certainly worth preserving, but the evolution of art keeps it alive for the future and allows for new avenues and new voices to flourish. Impressive!

Video via Jhonatan Aitan on YouTube.

From the Country to the City: 30 Years by Shan Ren

Near Haba, Yunnan Province © Philippe Semanaz with CCLicense

Near Haba, Yunnan Province
© Philippe Semanaz with CCLicense

The band Shan Ren (山人), or Mountain People, hails from the remote Yunnan Province in southwestern China and combines indigenous folk music with rock and reggae. Utilizing varied instruments from local minority communities, interesting rhythms and harmonies, and vocal techniques, such as the throaty trill used in the video below, their music posessess an exotic and flavorful quality. The band continues to gain popularity for its stirring performances and is now performing outside of China to curious and enthusiastic crowds.

It is the aim of Shan Ren to share their perceptions of the world, and this video exemplifies their purpose and their music beautifully. 30 Years is about a young man who came from the provinces into the city with big dreams of success and love. He is now thirty years old and realizes that his hopes were but pipe-dreams. There are many like him who have difficulty adjusting to modern city life despite their dreams and best intentions. This is beautiful and earthy music matched by an imaginative animated video. Enjoy!

Walking Across China: Cristoph Rehage’s Disorienting Journey

In November 2007, Christoph Rehage set out to walk from Beijing, on the far eastern side of China, to Germany. One year and 4500 miles later, scruffy and tired, he stopped his journey in western China at the city of Ürümqi. Cristoph took some breaks to visit family, but, even so, the journey across China was grueling and the mountains and the desert took their toll on his mind and body. This is a stunning video which documents the change in his appearance and attitude during the journey. Why did he stop? He says he doesn’t know, but the experience changed his identity. Can you imagine the emotions he must have felt?

A Fable Timeless and Timely: Su Yang’s Phoenix

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Do fables have something to contribute to the modern world? What do they show us about our society and ourselves?

The Cultural Revolution took place in China from 1966 through 1976 with the goal of removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society. Educated men and women were removed from their homes and taken to rural locations to be “re-educated”. They were subjected to backbreaking work and could be beaten or killed for any action, any creation that did not build up the “modern” ideals of the Party. The view was that mankind needed absolute realism and absolute equality to make progress. The goal of the Cultural Revolution proved impossible, but the process left a deep mark.

Video via sinoprod on Youtube.

This Chinese video from Su Yang takes a traditional courtship song and turns it into a warning. The original song, written before the Cultural Revolution, tells of an ill-fated couple who dare to love across class lines. In this version, we see Phoenix and Peony, who have a bright and happy future taken away by dark forces that awaken from under their home. A relentless drive for production destroys dreaming and the simple life and ends by destroying the family, but Phoenix remains. Like his namesake, Phoenix is made from fire; he cannot be destroyed by it.

The Mongolian Matoquin CC Licensed Image by Eric Pouhier via Wikipedia

The Mongolian Matouquin
© Eric Pouhier with CCLicense

There are three elements of this video which evoke a sense of timelessness and elevate Phoenix to the status of a cultural fable. First there is Su Yang’s vocal: throaty, raw and modern, vaguely reminiscent of Adam Durwitz of Counting Crows, and wedded to a repetitive, old-fashioned chorus style melody. Add to this the use of the matouqin, known in the Mongol tongue as the morin khuur, an extremely traditional Mongolian stringed instrument and you have a disorienting recording that has one foot in the past and one in the present. This might be interesting enough for some listeners, but it is the stellar animation by Hu Zhong Qiang that steals the show. Echoing the musical elements, it is stunningly modern even as it uses traditional Chinese images: beautiful peonies and birds, stylized people, and the phoenix itself. We experience a sense of loss as the dragon, an ancient symbol of China, is converted into a train. We experience horror as the sleeping animals below the Peony tree become mechanized agents of destruction. We identify with the sadness, hope, and burning defiance of Phoenix, which recall a legend more familiar to the Western mind than the dragon or the Peony. The visuals tell the story in a childlike way, yet the subject matter is hardly that of childhood. Or is it?

The genius of the video is that it is quintessentially Chinese, but retains a universal humanity that dissolves barriers. We can all appreciate and mourn the loss of culture, home, and family. Art at its best reminds us not only that we are precious individuals, but that we are connected by shared experience. This is a fable for all of us.

Are there fables that have stuck with you from childhood that appear in your dreams or in your art?