Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
The maniacally grinning trio in Untitled from 2003 presents an arresting apparition of absurdity. By usurping the composition of The Three Graces, which is amongst the most iconic and consistently rendered motifs in the history of Western art, the present work is a supreme paradigm of Yue Mijun’s irreverent practice of hi-jacking Western iconography as a means of articulating personal and social concerns. In this instance, Yue Minjun subverts the traditional art historical depiction of the mythological graces, substituting the graceful figures of Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia with his trademark grimacing clones. Where the beautiful daughters of Zeus are often portrayed in the nude, with only translucent veils subtly concealing their sexual organs, here the three ‘fools’ are customarily stripped down to their underpants and socks. By trivializing a sacred motif that was repeatedly re-choreographed throughout the centuries, Yue Minjun is not so much attacking the hegemony of Western art but rather articulating the metaphysical absurdity and irony that defines his oeuvre. Bearing Yue Minjun’s universally pervasive aesthetic, which is underscored by intellectual critique and symbolic significance, Untitled resonates across cultural, political and geographical barriers and manifests as a commanding paradigm of the Cynical Realist movement.
Wholly iconic of the rise of Chinese art in the 1990s, Yue Minjun’s grinning clones manifest as omnipresent portraits of an entire generation who came of age amidst an atmosphere of deflated idealism and rampant consumerism. A wealth of artistic schools flourished during the early 1990s as the Chinese art world remade itself, moving beyond the conceptual debates of the 1980s into a new mode of creation. The most energetic of these schools were the Cynical Realists, who through their work subtly mocked the society in which they lived. As one of Cynical Realism’s foremost members, Yue Minjun’s creative output revolved around his grinning self-image – a repeated motif throughout his oeuvre, which includes both painting and sculpture. The figures, all based on a generic self-portrait, are each rendered with an inane beaming smile – a cynical grimace that represents the artist’s resigned disdain towards the spiritual vacuity of contemporary Chinese culture. Often appearing with closed eyes as in the present work, these clones stand as a metaphor for the obsolete principles of collectivism and egalitarianism championed by the state which inhibited individualism and artistic creativity. Critic and curator Li Xianting further elucidates that the proliferation of smiling men in Yue Minjun’s oeuvre constituted the artist’s attempt at parodying China as an economic machine, with the empty-headed characters parodying the problem of consumerism that was corrupting socialist ideals.
For Yue Minjun, the only response to the pervading ludicrousness of reality is self-mockery, hysteria, and laughter. In his own words: “Laughter is the 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 artist cited in Monica Dematte, Yue Minjun). Until 1991 when he moved to Beijing to live in the artist’s village in Yuanmingyuan, Yue Minjun had spent his entire life in a danwei or state-run work commune, where everyone had to conform to standardised dress and obey a strict tyrannical regime. This was the plight of many in China, which was why “the act of smiling, laughing to mask feelings of helplessness, has such significance for my generation” (the artist cited in ‘Yue Minjun By Himself’ in exh. cat. Shenzhen, He Xiangning Art Museum, Reproduction Icons: Yueminjun Works, 2004-2006, 2006, p. 18). For Yue Minjun, laughter functioned as a means of passive political resistance; as the artist explains: “The act of giving up is profoundly human. It prevents conflicts with society and allows inner peace to be preserved. By giving up, one becomes carefree and detached. All problems can be resolved with a laugh, and disappear painlessly. In this way one attains an incomparable peace within” (Yue Minjun, ‘A Few words Behind My Works’ in exh. cat. Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, 2006, p. 138).
Executed in 2003, the present work hails back to an earlier series of works in which Yue Minjun blatantly alters well-known compositions in art history. Taking iconic works from both Chinese and Western culture, Yue Minjun throws them into discordance by playful satirical subversion, confronting towers of Western painting such as Goya, Manet, and Picasso, amongst others. As exemplified by the present work, Yue Minjun’s genius thus lies in his iconography which mines the rich seam of art history, couching his polemic in an overtly Western idiom. Here, where the traditional formula for depicting the three graces would feature them dancing in a circle, Yue Minjun positions them in a regimented line – an echo of military displays and state-run rallies. The composition of lined up figures is important to the artist, who explains: “A major turning point occurred in a painting that featured a row of figures: the type of line-up so common in our communal experience of life. The appearance of conformity and abeyance, yet so often enacted without conviction of purpose” (the artist cited in ‘Yue Minjun By Himself' in exh. cat. Shenzen, He Xiangning Art Museum, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, 2006, p. 20). By laughing at the absurdity of reality, and doing so through the language of high Western art, Yue Minjun issues an unimpassioned crie de coeur that resonates with immediacy and passion across the barriers of geography and time.
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