It was better that I seemed to be saying that I was the fool or the buffoon! At least I had the right to make that statement.
An incredibly early and rare example of Yue Minjun’s Cynical Realism lexicon, Kites from 1993 is not only a major work in the artist’s oeuvre but indeed a historical document from a crucial period in contemporary Chinese art history. As one of only a handful of paintings in Yue Minjun’s career dealing explicitly with the motif of Tiananmen Square, a principal emblem of China’s political power, Kites ranks amongst the most defining of Yue Minjun’s works, in line with the current record-holding piece and other key works such as Gweong Gweong (1993), Great Joy (1993) and Execution (1995). Setting itself apart from these paintings, Kites is the only work that presents the monumental gates in full view, unobstructed by the artist’s archetypal laughing clones suspended in mid-air. The vibrant colours of the architecture and the vivid blue sky recall The Founding Ceremony of the Nation by Dong Xiwen, a prominent Socialist Realist oil painting depicting Mao Zedong inaugurating the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Also unique to Kites is the featuring of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous 20th century poster of Aristide Bruant. The inclusion of Western art-historical reference not only sheds light on the historical context of a generation of artists who came of age at a time when China first opened up to the West, but also further elevates the present work’s inherent cynicism and satire which is imperative to Yue Minjun’s pictorial corpus.
One cannot examine the course of contemporary Chinese art history without comprehending the significance of Yue Minjun and the Cynical Realism movement. Wholly iconic of the rise of Chinese art in the 1990s, Yue Minjun’s maniacally grinning figures manifest as omnipresent portraits of a generation of artists working amidst an atmosphere of turbulent political shifts and conflicting socio-economic and cultural ideals. Central to the artist’s oeuvre, the irreverent visages reflect represent Yue Minjun’s response to the perceived absurdity of reality – that of self-mockery, hysteria, and laughter. With their eyes shut, these figures stand as metaphors for obsolete principles of collectivism and egalitarianism championed by the state, and are furthermore interpreted as the artist’s attempt at parodying China as an economic machine. For Yue Minjun, the only answer to the pervading ludicrousness of reality was self-mockery, hysteria, and laughter. In his own words: “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 1993, Kites is among the first works that demonstrate the incipience of Yue Minjun’s original artistic voice in the early 1990s. After moving to the artistic community of Yuanmingyuan in 1991, one of Yue Minjun’s first paintings was On the Rostrum of Tiananmen, which depicts four different looking laughing youths atop the gate at Tiananmen Square. In 1993, Yue Minjun would revisit the scene – this time flanked with armies of his trademark guffawing clones. In Kites, the unobstructed central frontal view of the walled building is unprecedented and unseen in the artist’s few paintings featuring the same motif. The laughing figures billow in the air like kites in flight, bringing forth memories of the old days when citizens were able to fly kites, cycle, and congregate freely in the Square; while the freed-up foreground is dominated by an elaborate floral display, an essential celebratory embellishment on the National Day of China. The absence of cheering crowds, however, found in a similar painting Gweong Gweong, imbues the scene with an eerie silence jarringly incompatible to the animated palette.
Wholly unique to the present work is the incorporation of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic image of the renowned satirical singer and poet Aristide Bruant. Emblazoned on the figures’ t-shirts, the recurring Bruants gaze directly down towards the empty square, seemingly taunting and questioning the incongruity of the scene. Yue Minjun has regularly incorporated Western art-historical iconography in his paintings, for example referencing Manet in Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1995) and Goya and Manet in Execution (1995). A superlative and early specimen of Yue Minjun’s trademark laughing figures combined with references to Western Modernism as well as the history of his native land, Kites is a paramount piece in the history of contemporary Chinese art.