- Yue Minjun
- Between Men and Animal
- signed in Pinyin and dated 2005
- oil on canvas
- 279.4 by 401.3 cm.; 110 by 158 in.
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Lü Peng ed., Contemporary Artists Collection - Yue Minjun, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, Chengdu, China, 2007, p. 88
“Idolatry has made life uninteresting and even absurd. You tell me: should I or should I not satirise idols and confront them with jeering laughter.”
Few artists express the Chinese view on history as lucidly as Yue Minjun. In Between Men and Animal (Lot 58), we see eight figures—half men and half animals—with horns protruding from their heads and in black sleeveless shirts. Laughing without reserve, they raise their arms and make suggestive hand gestures, evoking the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. With their exaggerated expressions and poses, Yue Minjun seems to parody the excesses of these young zealots, who under the banner of Maoism attacked people deemed counter- revolutionary and ransacked their homes, destroying many of China’s most precious cultural artifacts. Between Men and Animal reflects the collective madness of this period and draws attention to the political leadership launching the mass actions behind the scenes: were these leaders humans or animals? Yue Minjun writes that “in contemporary society idols have become very unappealing. Many people feel revolted when they even think about so-called great figures. Idolatry has made life uninteresting and even absurd. You tell me: should I or should I not satirize idols and confront them with jeering laughter?” 1 Unlike most of Yue’s other works, Between Men and Animal is a political satire. As the foremost representative of Cynical Realism, however, Yue does not offer explicit criticism. For an entire generation of Chinese, the feeling of helplessness in the face of reality can only be laughed off—satire and mockery are a form of powerless resistance. Between Men and Animal perfectly captures this collective mood.
Born in Heilongjiang Province in 1962, Yue Minjun is considered a third-generation post-Cultural Revolution artist. He embarked on his career as a full-time independent artist in the Yuanmingyuan artist village in Beijing in 1991. In his early works from 1991 and 1992, he took his friends and acquaintances as his subjects and painted them realistically, in contrast to the comic-book aesthetics and standardized iconographies of his later works. His 1991 On the Rostrum of Tiananmen is representative of his early period. It depicts four Chinese youths with different appearances standing atop the gate at Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong pronounced the founding of the People’s Republic of China. One of them is laughing at something beyond the frame. Curator and critic Li Xianting has argued that Cynical Realists are an important artist group in contemporary Chinese art. Yue Minjun’s satirical and repetitive use of laughing faces based on himself reflects the helplessness against social and political realities that Chinese felt in the early 1990’s. Like other Cynical Realists such as Fang Lijun and Liu Ye, Yue offers a resigned, passive kind of resistance, wherein laughter is the weapon. He says, “Laughing like ‘ha-ha,’ laughing out loud, laughing satirically, laughing madly, laughing in the face of death, laughing at society—it seems all of these are present in my works. To laugh is to refuse thought. It means that the mind is unable to process certain things and thus needs an escape. This is an hilariously laughable age.” Yue found that his figures’ inexplicable laughter and mockery of social constructions made manifest an ethos of satire and joking indifference. He thus began painting the laughing faces, which have become an important element in almost all his works.
A group of ideologically-driven Chinese artists emerged during the ’85 New Wave movement. Influenced by Western thought, they were eager to save Chinese culture. Having witnessed two older generations of artists’ disappointed hopes for the renewal of Chinese culture, Cynical Realists like Yue developed a fundamental scepticism towards life. For them, affirming the reality of personal feelings was most important. Reflecting on the early 90’s, Yue writes, “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.”2 Under these circumstances, he chose to express his views on life through the absurdness of laughing faces: “The laughing image is for me a guarantee—a guarantee that everything will become better, much like how Buddhism promises a better next life.”3 He perfected the image of the laughing face—which was based on his own—with its pink skin, perfectly neat teeth, and tightly-shut eyes, and repeatedly painted it in his works as if it were a signature, thereby confronting and narrating the absurdness and unpredictability of politics and society.
The uniform figures in Yue’s other works also evoke the mass actions of the Cultural Revolution. Standing in a file, the figures in Between Men and Animal are compositionally reminiscent of historical photographs and propaganda of the time. Early during the Cultural Revolution, masses of students believing fervently in Mao’s ideas organised themselves into Red Guards and attacked and occupied households everywhere, including their own families. People attacked each other blindly and mercilessly holding Mao’s Little Red Book. Between Men and Animal reflects this period of irrationality. The crowd with devilish horns face the left together, as in the standard propaganda iconography of Worker, Farmer, and Soldier. Infusing the image with his own absurdism, Yue makes their gestures incomprehensible and meaningless, while also somehow resembling the feverish signals of a stock market and satirizing the commercialism of contemporary China. Li Xianting has interpreted the tendency of Yue Minjun’s human figures to coalesce into rows and files as connoting commercial and mechanical mass reproduction and reflecting the uncanny absurdness that the Chinese feel towards their country’s rapid and thorough commercialisation: “[Yue] consumes totalitarian ideology commercially and uses totalitarian, personhood denying compositions to symbolise commercial culture’s erosion of humanity, creating a feeling of double absurdity.”4
Between Men and Animal is a satire of Red Guards history as well as a reflection of the individual’s helplessness and apathy towards the past in the face of China’s present commercialisation. The painted figures wish to dispel these feelings with jokes and humour. Their eyes tightly shut, they fail or refuse to see the future, but have learnt to laugh off whatever may come. They are true embodiments of a very Chinese way of life.
1 Yue Minjun, Reflections
2 “interview with Yue Minjun, by Shen Zhong”, Yue Minjun, L’ombre du four ire,
Fondation Cartier pourl’art contemporain, 2012
3 Reproduced Idols: Works by Yue Minjun, 2004-2006, He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2006
4 The Face Behind the Bamboo Curtain, Schoeni Art Gallery, 1994