The Iconic Smiley Face
In the world of contemporary Chinese art, Yue Minjun’s iconic smiling men undoubtedly remain at the forefront of quintessential 1990s symbols. These identical faces are not only self-portraits of the artist, but also depict a coming-of-age generation who must both live under the remnants of Cultural Revolution and at the same time experience the effects of the rapid modernisation of Chinese society. Through his accurate expression of helplessness in Chinese society, Yue has become a key figure in the notable “Cynical Realist” movement, a term coined by the pioneering art critic Li Xianting, revealing the disenfranchisement behind an ostensibly impeccable nation. Backyard Garden was completed in 2005, and is one of Yue’s mature works from the post-millennium era. The artist introduced his own image into the painting, with the four laughing figures placed amidst a typical rockery of a traditional Chinese garden. Their eyes are closed, and as they dart around the garden, they are laughing at the scene, playing amongst themselves. The entire piece is imbued with the essence of absurdity, and through it Yue stresses the importance of confronting reality. The rockery is a traditional Chinese metaphor, which here corresponds to China’s rapid economic and social development during the 1990s; whilst the cynicism and absurdity of the laughing figures constitutes a form of resistance to this new state of affairs.
Born in 1962 in Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun is part of the third generation of post-Cultural Revolution artists. In 1991, his move to the artist village Yuanmingyuan on the outskirt of Beijing was an important turning point in the young artist’s career. It was during his stay there that he could experience true artistic freedom away from the limits imposed by government and academia. “This is exactly the life that I want. Everything is so great. It is not so difficult after all to become an independent artist. The rent is cheap, and the surroundings are better than studios. The most important thing is I can finally determine my own way of life” (Yue Minjun, Sichuan Art Publishing, 2007). This was where Yue Minjun first met Fang Lijun and Yang Shaobin. Living together, they became the spearheads of Cynical Realist movement. Yue Minjun even painted his friends in his lifestyle themed works, in stark contrast to the standardized compositions and iconography present in his later works.
For the artist himself, living during the 1990s, laughter has become a way to confront life. During the ’85 New Wave movement a group of idealistic Chinese artists emerged, who were inspired by modern ideas from the West to revitalize Chinese culture. For Yue’s generation, the “Cynical Realismts”, their witness to the failure of the two previous generations raised fundamental questions about life. Unlike other artists, Yue has chosen to express his own views on life through the absurdity of the big smiling face. “The image of a laughing face was to me an assurance that things would get better: that a future life could be as rewarding and meaningful as Buddha had promised.” Furthermore, for Yue, the action of laughing is essential in attaining spiritual tranquility. “I believed that giving up everything was a way of life; through avoiding conflict in society one could attain inner peace. Giving up allows one to relinquish all grudges, to laugh things off easily, and to turn problems into dust. It is through this process that we can achieve ultimate peace with ourselves” (Ibid.)
Curator Li Xianting has pointed out that the repetition of smiling men arranged in lines is the artist’s attempt at parodying China as the ‘economic machine’, one that mass produces commodities and upholds the values of consumerism; “using commercialism and his empty-headed characters to present the problems of a consumerism which has both poisoned socialist ideals and corrupted the individual of our society. This seemingly arbitrary combination of consumerism and anti-individualism gives a cynical and humorous feel to his work” (Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain, Schoeni Art Gallery, 1994). Naturally, the satirical tone and critical examination into one’s state of being continues to be a consistent theme in the artist’s later works, where the smiling men begin to sport white, perfectly aligned teeth, shaven heads, and pinky skin. Thus the iconic figures in Backyard Garden indeed evoke Yue Minjun’s signature aesthetic.