Lot 1143
  • 1143

YUE MINJUN | Goldfish

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 HKD
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  • Yue Minjun
  • Goldfish
  • oil on canvas
  • 180 by 247 cm.   70⅞ by 97¼ in.
signed in Chinese and dated 1993.12


Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong
Private Collection
Sotheby's, New York, 21 March 2007, Lot 53
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


Hong Kong, Schoeni Art Gallery, Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain, July 1994, p. 17, illustrated in colour
Brussels, La Moutarderie Nationale, Collection Gillion Crowet, 2007 - 2019


Jonathan Harris, The Global Contemporary Art World, New Jersey 2013, p. 143 (in text)

Catalogue Note

A smile is the best means of mediating life's awkward situations, especially potentially confrontational ones, because to laugh is a more effective – if not more productive – course of action than the unleashing of anger, or of internalising a problem.
Yue Minjun

Goldfish from 1993 is an early and fascinating example of Yue Minjun’s Cynical Realism lexicon. A magnificent exercise in receding perspective, the work features a long row of the artist’s iconic laughing surrogate selves peering down over a white stone balustrade - the iconic Golden Water Bridge in front of Tiananmen Square. A single goldfish is the subject of scrutiny – the finishing touch to the arresting and wonderfully absurd tableaux. 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. 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, Goldfish is among the first works that demonstrate the incipience of Yue Minjun’s original artistic voice in the early 1990s. Like many artists of his generation, Yue turns on the seeming homogeneity of the Chinese people; producing portraits of an almost mask-like anonymity. Yet Yue tends toward hyperbole – a brighter color language, a louder voice, and a more jaded point of view. He reiterates a caricatured self-portrait dominated by the same broad grin, as much a grimace as a smile or laugh. The artist has said: “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 the Buddha promised.” Furthermore, for Yue, the action of laughing is essential to acquiring spiritual tranquility. “I believed that giving up everything was a way of life; avoiding conflicts in the society could attain inner peace. Giving up allows one to not hold grudge on anything, to be able to laugh things off easily, and to turn problems into thin dust. It is through this can we achieve ultimate peace with ourselves” (Yue Minjun, Sichuan Art Publishing, 2007). 

Born in 1962 in Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun is part of the third generation of artists after the Cultural Revolution. Eminent curator Li Xianting has pointed out that the repetition of smiling men configured in mechanically geometric rows was the artist’s attempt at parodying China as an economic machine, one that mass produces commodities and upholds consumerism, “using commercialism and his empty-headed characters to present the problem of a consumerism which has poisoned both Socialist ideals and the individual of our society. This seemingly arbitrary combination of consumerism and anti-individualism gives a cynical and humorous edge to his work” (Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain, Schoeni Art Gallery, 1994). Espousing the artist’s signature aesthetic in a striking and intriguing composition, Goldfish features not only self-portraits of the artist but also portraits of an entire generation coming-of-age under the remnants of Cultural Revolution as well as the rapid and turbulent modernisation of the Chinese society, bearing witness to one of the most important eras of modern Chinese history.