Born in 1962 in Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun belongs to the third generation of artists after the Cultural Revolution. Since 1991, he began to work independently as a full-time artist in Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan artist village in search of the direction for his artistic practice. From 1991 to 1992, his early works were mainly based on the portrayal of his friends, with the figurative approach differing from the cartoonish and repetitive style seen in the later works. A Play that Took Place on Tower X from 1991 is the emblematic piece of this period, presenting four visually distinctive Chinese youths wandering on top of the gate tower in Tiananmen Square, while one profusely laughs at what is to be seen outside of the canvas. Produced two years later in 1993, Happiness brilliantly transcends the gesture of laughter into the spirit of mockery that came to not only represent Yue’s renowned artistic practice, but the core of the “Cynical Realism” movement. Both in terms of the colour palette and composition, the lot on offer has shifted from his early works, fundamentally focusing on the uniformity of the characters and demonstrating a superficial, almost whimsical flare through the renewed use of tantalising red, white, and pastel shades.
In the work, a group of identical men are seen standing behind one another against a seemingly clear sky covered in endless red balloons. Considering how some of the most important symbols within Yue’s oeuvre first make their appearance in this piece, Happiness is arguably one of Yue’s most early works to extend the scope of the repetition motif to reflect the influence of Western capitalism in modern China during 1990s. The white t-shirts immediately stand out as products from the West, associating closely with the image of commodification. At the same time, the cluster of red balloons, a motif frequently found in Yue’s later works, further represents the collective spirit of nationalism in the Communist society. Through the juxtaposition of these two elements, Yue has strategically constructed a visual discourse critical of the rapid economic advance of China in the early 90s decade. Aesthetically, the exceptional work also embodies a rare and experimental characterisation of the smiling men, namely the long hair and fair skin tone, that is difficult to find in his later works, contrasting greatly with the bald head and pink skin that populate his other works.
Li Xianting has previously argued that Cynical Realists were one of the most important artist groups in contemporary Chinese art. Yue Minjun’s satirical and repetitive use of laughing faces certainly reflects the helplessness against political realities that Chinese felt in the new China, and as the figures in Happiness suggest, a new path towards capitalism and commercialism. Having been selected into two of the most renowned survey exhibitions on Chinese contemporary art, Happiness is truly considered to be a foremost piece that establishes the lineage of Yue’s artistic practice, exemplifying his carefree, humorous, yet rowdy take on the absurdity of reality. As illustrated by the smiles on these eight figures, it is clear to see that they together form a resigned, passive kind of resistance against the cruel reality in China, utilising satire as the main weapon. The figures’ inexplicable laughter and mockery of social constructions have further eluded ethos of ennui and indifference emblematic of Yue’s highly celebrated oeuvre. As he had written, “We tended to paint our realities and feelings. Even if they were ugly or negative, at least they are not fictitious beauties. In this way I feel we returned to what is real and believable in painting. Here art became compelling again.”1 “The laughing image is for me a guarantee—a guarantee that everything will become better, much like how Buddhism promises a better next life.”2 Considering this, Happiness stands apart from all his other works as it reveals an acutely ironic observation to the mentality of the Chinese society in the 1990s; the population, with the introduction of capitalism, began to collectively march away from the red balloons and towards their ultimate destination, hope and freedom.
1 Shen Zhong, “Interview with Yue Minjun”, Yue Minjun, L’ombre du four ire, Fondation Cartier pourl’art contemporain, 2012
2 Reproduced Idols: Works by Yue Minjun, 2004-2006, He Xianning Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2006
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