Orient object and its consumption has been suggested by Kim (2006) as an infiltration into the disciplinary procedures of ethnography used to delineate an aesthetic discourse of beauty used by professionals and merchants to represent the ahistorical, apolitical engagements with the east much exploited in mass media and scholarly texts in the west. This paper shall try to present the aesthetic as well as commercial interpretation of artist Yue Min Jun as an artist, in the eyes of a westerner but with the consideration of personal history and struggle to define and mold a person as an artist.
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Yue Minjun born in 1962 in the town of Daqing, Heilongjiang Province in China is considered one of the successful contemporary or avant garde Chinese artists. He is currently based in Beijing known for oil painting showing his laughing face in various scenarios and time frame although this has been replicated in sculpture, watercolor and even mass produced prints.
It was said that Yue Min Jun worked in the oil fields of northeast China where his father also worked before he studied in the Oil Painting Department of Hebel Normal University in China in 1985. It has been said that he had to convince his employer to use some of his time to study from 1983 to 1989. His style was apparently inspired by Geng Jianyi in the 1989 China Avant Garde show in Beijing that depicted Geng’s laughing face. During this period, he has also been greatly disappointed with the Tiananmen Square tragedy so that in 1990, he moved in the outskirts of Beijing. According to Davis (2007), his style was developed with his artist friends supported by foreign art investors.
On laughter, Yue Min Jun said, “I have always found laughter irresistible-well, at least I don’t dislike it. I paint people laughing, whether it is a big laugh, a restrained laugh, a crazy-laugh, a near-death laugh or simply laughter about our society: laughter can be about anything. Laughter is a moment when our mind refuses to reason. When we are puzzled by certain things, our mind simply doesn’t want to struggle, or perhaps we don’t know how to think, therefore we just want to forget it.
The 90’s is the time when everyone should laugh. Artists are the kind of people who always like to reveal to the simple, innocent and humble souls the never-ending illusion of our lives,” (quoted from Yuen Min Jun, 2008).
Many variations and techniques are implemented by Yue Min Jun in his art, but all these are depicted as background or setting to his formidable, permanent, signature and logo laughing face.
His most expensive work “Execution” showing irreverent and scantily clad Yue Min Jun with the hilariously sardonic smile laughter in varying angles about to be executed, a play on the Tiananmen Square tragedy thousands were allegedly killed in a pro-democracy rally in 1989. Previously, the painting was bought by investment banker Trevor Simon with a third of his salary. As part of the required conditions, he kept the painting for 10 years. When “Massacre of Chios” sold for about US $4.1 million in Sotheby Hong Kong, one week later, “Execution” was bought for US$5.9 million at London’s Sotheby’s.
Yue Min Jun’s more recent group exhibits include international shows such as “Dreaming of the Dragon’s Nation: Contemporary Art Exhibition from China, in Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland, the “Guangju Biennale 2004: A Grain of Dust, A Drop of Water” in Korea, “Art on the Beach: Sculptures” at the Enrico Navarra Gallery, in Ramatuelle, France, “20 Years of Hanart TZ Gallery” at the Hong Kong Art Center, “China, the Body Everywhere?” at Maseille Museum of Contemporary Art in France. His solo exhibits are the following from the most recent to the earliest: “Yue Min Jun: Sculptures & Paintings” at the Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong in 2004, “Yue Min Jun: Beijing Ironicals,” Prüss & Ochs Gallery, Berlin, Germany and “YueMinJun,” Meile Gallery, Switzerland in 2003, “Soaking In Silly Laughter; one of Art Singapore” Soobin Art Gallery,” Singapore, and “Yue Min Jun: Handling One”, World Art Center, China in 2002. He also had a solo “Red Ocean-Yue Min Jun, Chinese Contemporary”, London, England,” (Yue Min Jun, 2008)
Yue Min Jun’s style is based on contemporary branding, an off-shoot of popular marketing strategies where a well-known logo, in this manner Yue Min Jun’s laughing face will fit into any background or setting. The face in eternal hilarious, sarcastic, cynical, and hilarious laughter, showing model-type countless teeth is, “Emblematic and easy to recognize, Yue’s self-portrait manages to reference the 7th-century Laughing Buddha, the happy Communist worker of the 20th century and postmodernist irony all at once,” (quoted from Davis, 2007).
Market Value of his art works
By 2007, Yue Min Jun’s art work has multiplied about 100 times in value in a span of two years so that 13 of his paintings sold at auction for more than $1 million making Yue Min Jun set records “That beats the records of painting legends like David Hockney, Brice Marden and Ed Ruscha, all artists who have already had major museum surveys devoted to their work,” according to Davis.
In a US exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art in Corona Park, 30 paintings and two sculpture groups were exhibited. It showed the same quality that saw his almost unbelievable rise although many of those works were dated 2000 or beyond. In fact, the exhibit installation itself was seen to have been done in a rush, showing a phenomenon that needs to be captured (Davis, 2007).
As previously noted, the relentless laughter is the central motif: the eyes are a line, shut, a face and if body is shown in an exaggerated gleaming pinkish complexion, with the open mouth and its row of identical white teeth disappearing in an eternity of open mouth. As depicted in his previous paintings, the head was disproportionately big, more pronounced with the big, open mouth, basically the same in all of his works, identical and consistent: same clothes or costume, figures that come to life in the same proportion of sculptures.
Sculpture and other works
In 1999, Yue Min Jun created the Contemporary Terracotta Warriors made of bronze replicating his painted self. This is a take-off from China’s Qin Dynasty army of terracotta warriors that kept watch of the dead royalty. These were cast in the same mold, and identical one set carried long sticks as shown in the 2005 Queen Museum of Art gallery, while another earlier set estimated in 2001 showed him in contemporary white shirt and black pants.
Another work “Noah’s Ark” showed him in six identical bodies cramped in a small rowboat squatting and holding on to their knees in silent laughter. Another three again in their underwear cackling as depicted in the Execution, were on a painting of the Galaxy bodies called “Solar System”.
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Yue Min Jun rejected the label “cynical realism” but admitted to not minding however else people would call him. It was said his art was developed in the New Art Movement period in the mid ‘80s when the “China / Avant Garde” was staged in Beijing. It was in this year that Yue Min Jun got the first glimpse of his signature. One of his contemporaries in this period is Zhang Xiaogang who also uses the repetitive technique, or symbolical signature of undernourished, stiff family portraits. Both artists and their art works depict or send a consistent message not easily apparent although obvious in manners to those who are in the know.
The Chinese Art from Mao Tse-Tung’s time Onwards
Between 1880-1920, consumer culture developed intensifying Far East collectibles and art in America and Western nations (Jacobson, 1999). Catalogues and magazines touted Japanese, Chinese, Javanese and other Asian art and products such as screens, cabinets, rugs vases, and prints should be regarded as the sine qua non among the French settees or Dutch bedsteads in the American home (Kim, 2006)
Chinese art dominated the “eastern” and “oriental” image for centuries specifically when it comes to the western scholars and observers. It showed of dainty watercolor paintings of flowers, gardens and Chinese pagodas floating to a mist. In the period of Mao Tse-tung, it was said that after the war many artists relocated to the hinterland in west China. Here they lived substandard and dire lives as they taught art in schools but had to take in other jobs as they held on to their art (Yiu, 2008). In this period, artists played on Chinese and Western techniques as they developed both or their own unique style. These artists include Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996), Lu Shoukun (1919-1975), Yuan Songnian (1895-1966), Wu Guangzhong (b. 1919) and Fu Shuda (d. 1960). As Yiu (2008) described the style of Fu, “flying white” technique – which refers to the areas that remain white as a result of the brush running out of ink – to depict strands of beard, the tassel and the shininess of the sword,” (p 4).
Other styles have also been apparent, a successful blend of east and west such as that of Pang (1945) with the use of oil as medium, line drawings using Chinese fine bush as seen in Tang Dancing Girl. Here, grace is accentuated by the use of subtly modulated lines, use of clear contour, and shadow in clothes that strengthen volume of the figures. Use of emotion was also apparent, indicative in the objects depicted in the scenes, such as an unused pipe in a painting that depicted a wife reading a letter. Yiu (2008) suggested that Pang’s works in this instance were neither accepted western nor eastern. Chinese art were given more depth with the struggle the artists had to make to have their voices heard though visual art.
Another outstanding example of artwork is that of Qi Baishi whose 1949 landscape using his signature brushwork provided concise composition and bold strokes. The confines of tradition and political authority were challenges that the artists have to defy and this continued in a period when China finally opened its markets to the world.
As compared to Yue Min Jun’s period, “political pop” was developed by his contemporaries where Chairman Mao’s head is floated on commercial logos like Coca-Cola’s bringing the issue of western “idolatry”, of icons like Marlyn Monroe, Picasso, or even Michael Jackson (Davis, 2007). “All I did was borrow what they do, reproducing myself as an idol over and over.” Consequently, Yue Min Jun’s style is fused with pop art, with contemporary popular cartoons, a brand identity in itself. This has also been depicted ina hat series with the same laughing face donning a variety of hats as shown in the QMA exhibit: from Catwoman’s, helmet, a beret, a chef, to a Birtish policeman and an endless list more. As Davis (2007) wrote, “What the series nicely illustrates, however, is the way Yue’s character is universally adaptable, a sort of logo that can be attached to any setting to add value.
The thing about logos is that they don’t lend themselves to nuance. They are about providing an instantly legible stamp.”
Kuo (2004) quoted late nineteenth century and early twentieth century artist Huang Pin-hung to have written that, “An artist at the outset of his career should pay attention to three matters: First, brushwork and ink… through [the] practice of calligraphy, painting and reading. Second, the origin and development of art… through copying and viewing. Third, creativity… accomplished through traveling and painting from life,” (p) 50. This has been interpreted further by Kuo as relating to tradition of which an artist learns from the ancient masters through copying. In the case of Yue Min Jun, copying his biggest influence for his signature fellow artist Geng Jianyi and thereby inspired by other works, scenes or popular characters such as the terracotta warriors of China itself, the biblical Noah’s ark, use of pop icons such as his 2000 artwork “Marylin, Red No 3” or even “How are you Vermeer?” and “Hello Manet.”
As Kim (2006) commented, consumerism is a prerequisite for social recognition and beyond to self-definition yet warily accepted as seductive and suspicious. It seemed Yue Min Jun capitalized on this premise as consumption itself, according to Kim (2006), is a practice and ideology as well as establishment and concretization of new modern sensibilities. Kim (2006) added that, “as a signifier, consumption often connotes destruction and wastefulness; even singles out within the felicitous field of economic discourse …[that] implies the threat of overconsumption,” (p 379). Noticeably, Yue Mi Jun’s art has been heavily touted and accepted by western audience. The western consumer has bitten well its commercial appeal, romantizing and maximizing a history shared by billions, and probably by the global citizens who in one period of their time have experienced oppression, shocked by a reality of bloody greed of power.
As Kim (2006) further implored, western texts on oriental mysticism and art “demonstrate how fungible the Orient-as-concept can be within modern narratives of cultural translation and purification, the moral crisis of being possessed by objects, and the unsettling consciousness of experiencing the “past” and the “present” as coeval in everyday life,” (p 380).
Yue Min Jun’s art is a successful employ of wit, passion, focus, and western’s branding culture. Popular culture has emerged as a work of marketing, and although Yue Min Jun’s stumble on the emblematic logo of his sarcastic laughing face could be accidentally fortunate, it is also to be noted where his wit and imagination were coming from.
Years of hardship and oppression, silence and pretension yielded to an art form that although taking advantage on the culture of modern marketing, has rooted from an artist’s pain, and the need to express. China was not a very supportive environment during the earlier periods and the blossoming of Yue Min Jun’s art. Politics could have easily affected the outcomes of his labor as it is easily noted it was a western expatriate who first bought his most precious painting. Incidentally, it was a mockery of a faulty political act, the demise of thousands seeking for freedom of expression.
Yue Min Jun, although perennially pictured as that laughing bastard in a culture called visual art, has more to say than just pop art. The lines and contours of his face also were perennially emblazoned on that laughing face, and the perfect complete white teeth as pop audience always knew, was just cosmetic. In the end, what may be easily apparent which is the laughter, is itself a decoy, a trap, a way to catch attention. And when the viewer gets closer after being intrigue with the laughter, another message is conveyed via the close-up view of Yue Min Jun’s face. Its distortion successfully depicted pain and anguish, and the repetition of the image in various settings and medium only multiplies a message that tries to reach to his audience.
The effort of Yue Min Jun’s reaching out beneath his mocked laughter has paid off well.
- Jacobson, Dawn (1999). Chinoiserie. Phaidon.
- Yue Min Jun (2008). “Biography”.
- Davis, Ben. (2007). “Guy Smiley”, Artnet Magazine. Web.
- Yiu, Josh (2008). “The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection of Modern Chinese Painting.” Apollo, 2008. pp 1-6
- Kuo, Jason (2004). “Transforming Traditions in Modern Chinese Painting: Huang Pin-hung’s Late Work.” Asian Thought and Culture 35.
- Kim, Thomas W (2006). “Being Modern: The Circulation of Oriental Objects.” American Quarterly, Volume 58, Number 2, 2006, pp. 379-406