Age of Survival
To examine the course of contemporary Chinese art, one cannot dismiss the discussion of Yue Minjun and his iconic smiling men. Since the early 1990s, the renowned artist has served as a pioneer in reflecting upon the absurdity and political turmoil within China during the period of rapid urbanisation and economic reform. Along with Fang Lijun and Liu Wei, influential critic and curator Li Xianting has coined Yue Minjun to be the leading artist from the Cynical Realism movement, forming the critical foundation to the early Chinese contemporary art scene. Throughout the two decades, the signatory smiling face, which was based on his own, has not only withstood the test of time, but further contributed to the artist’s rising popularity outside of China even today, most notably with his major solo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris in late 2012. Created in 2003, Garbage Hill (Lot 146) remains to be one of the most significant masterpieces from the early millennium period to parody the notion of survival and uniformity within modern China.
The single panel lot on offer is one of only two works, with the other being the diptych Garbage Dump, to explore the relationship between individualism and national spirit. On view, over fifty men in different scale are whimsically piled above one another, with their heads curiously forming the contour of a mountain scape. The figures carry several different types of hairstyles, symbolising faint traces of individualism, while their identical facial expressions ultimately point toward a harmonious whole. If looked upon closely, the uncanny smiles inevitably question the genuineness of the happiness shown- are these smiles real or are they a mere pretentious gesture in order to assimilate into the masses? Along with the rare composition and outlandish scheme, Garbage Hill certainly triumphs over Yue’s other paintings from the same year as it explicitly encapsulates the idea of self-mockery, and more importantly, explores the meaning of individuality and pretense in a collective society.
The title of the work also offers a critical glimpse into the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of commodification in the new millennium, when China further progresses towards the road of Western capitalism. The mountain of heads symbolises not only material abundance, but also a subtle satire of the absurd consumer culture in China, marked by increased desire and production of luxury goods. At the same time, the cluster also directly confronts the viewer, at once forcing one to evaluate the tightly intertwined, yet impersonal interaction between these figures and their counterparts. The motif of the repeated self-portrait and commodification in the present work curiously recalls the spirit of Pop artist Andy Warhol’s masterpiece Self Portrait (1966). Both artists have satirized their own image as the icon of consumerism, further blurring the line between high art and commodity. Considering his early works from the beginning of Cynical Realism, Garbage Hill exceptionally represents a new phase within Yue’s career that provides a reinterpreted narrative to the original spirit of the movement in early 1990s.
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 conographies 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. In comparison with his earlier works, aesthetically, Garbage Hill has paid greater attention towards the ideological concept of living in China during the early 2000’s, ridding of figurative backgrounds and instead looking inwards at the symbolic function of the mechanic smile, as he once said, “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 a hilariously laughable age.”
Li Xianting has 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 Garbage Hill suggests, the inevitable road towards Western capitalism. In face of these situations, Yue offers a resigned, passive kind of resistance, utilizing laughter as the main weapon. The figures’inexplicable laughter and mockery of social constructions have further eluded ethos of satire, ennui, and indifference emblematic of Yue’s highly celebrated practice. 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 These faces have served as temporary sanctuary, where the artist and the Chinese population seek for a future of hope and change, “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 Among all his works, Garbage Hill has truly exemplified the image of the repeated laughing face- with its pink skin, perfectly neat teeth, and tightly-shut eyes, highlighting a rare composition and motif that effectively narrate the absurdness and unpredictability of politics and culture in China during the millennium period.
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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