To Desecrate Icons With Icons

To Desecrate Icons With Icons


The art of Yue Minjun is based on his own smile as the basic image for his painting and sculpture. This image has become a kind of permanent icon through repeated use over the last ten years. For the Chinese, an icon is an integral symbol in their minds, as in the saying “the kingdom cannot do without a king for a single day”. Why is it so? This is because in the psychology of the Chinese, there is the habit of passively accepting icons and the mentality of letting themselves be suppressed by despots and controlled by heroes. They have the common characteristic of showing blind loyalty under great power and pressure. The people throughout the country during the Mao era therefore were all united in their thinking, conduct and language, because “we will triumph only when we all march to the same tune”. In other words Mao Zedong applied the approach of military operation to order the daily lives of the people during peacetime. Thus appeared a miracle-the uniform Mao attire or the green fatigue of the army had become the common everyday dress of the Chinese people for more than half a century. If anyone tried to dress any differently he or she would be ostentatious. If this refers to the matter of clothes of everyday life, it also applies to art where on an ideological level it is in the service of politics, socialism, and the people. In its form, it should be red, bright and brilliant especially “Cultural Revolution art” with its particular composition, icons of the worker, peasant and soldier, and stipulated colors. Any artist who had produced propaganda posters would have created works according to these guidelines. Come to think of it, with the triumphalism of the worker, peasant and soldier in those years, that smile on their faces that greeted dawn and welcomed spring and victory is the same one on Yue Minjun’s face. This is the smile with Chinese characteristic, disciplined, proud and bright. Whenever such a well-regulated smile appears in the movies, plays and art work, it must represent the victory of the Chinese people, or even another victory yet again. When the people face this kind of smile, they feel the pride and nobility of the Chinese people, and an invincible strength as well as a surge of warmth. Besides, such a smile leads the people to love and embrace their motherland while setting their sight on the world.


Born in the early 1960s Yue Minjun felt during his childhood and youth that the world, and aesthetics were neat and uniform where there was no room for individual imagination and expansion. What then was really his creative source and theoretical basis? This in fact can be traced to what the ancient sages said: “Banish the desire of Man so that the principle of Heaven is kept alive.” Yue has discerned the Chinese essence from all those details of a feudalistic culture. In his work, he forcefully exposes the limitations to life and space for existence of the Chinese people, in order to seek the almost holy strength and mythical magic that have formed in their hearts. What was the secret of the success of rebels such as Chen Sheng and Wu Guang? What is meant when one says a lie becomes truth when it has been repeated a thousand times? These questions have probably given Yue the basic idea why he would become an icon. That is to say one must first become an icon oneself before it is possible for others to assess how good or bad one is. As long as one is criticized, one’s art gradually comes into existence in people’s mind. If one doesn’t become a model, who would know what one is struggling with? Successful people in the world fall into two types: the first is the kind who quickly sets himself up as an icon as soon as he goes out into world, moving with the currents of the media era flowing into homes of ordinary folks. The other kind is the recluse who goes in meditation leaving his thoughts and work in the hills to be found 500 years later as a great discovery that would make both news and art historical material at the same time. The difference between the two lies only in the time of and chosen way to success.


Of course as some might say, wouldn’t using one’s own smiling face again and again as an icon amount to opportunism? This is a good question. Let us consider for a moment, the paintings of the “Four Greats” of Yuan Dynasty show that each has a distinct style, which is as clear as daylight. Why? Because each had very distinctive features in terms of composition and brush technique as they summarized the characteristics of Nature while working on the icon of Nature as an art form. The same goes for Ni Yunlin who kept on painting with broken lines so that people would remember that as his innovation. Yue paints himself smiling everyday in order to keep reminding people of the artistic characteristics of himself appearing as an icon. This is the common theme of artists through the ages. It is only artists such as Picasso who have the exceptional energy to change several times in one single day as though they have taken some elixir.


As I see it, there have been three directions in Yue Minjun’s artistic exploration in the last decade.


1         Characteristics of social expression and mass culture


This type of work is represented by sculptures such as Terracotta Soldiers. Rows of human figures stand in lines as in a military formation, all laughing emptily, as though waiting for an order and the response from those wearing the same grin. Similar to this is Pyramid, which depicts the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Actually these 17 people are all tired and in danger because a slightest move would set off a chain reaction. Each of them therefore would be on their knees day and night but never stopped laughing as though if they did a crisis would break out between them, which is the secret of the construction of the pyramid. Tango represents even more effectively the coordination between people in a society, whether you fly high in your achievement or suffer in your submission, you get a sense of the tango style and the comical. Guanxi reflects the weird relationship between people trying to mystify each other in society, as is often heard: “It is because I like you that I abuse you with abandon and deliberately flog your bottoms in public.” This on the one hand shows that I know too well that you are able to endure this kind of humiliation; on the other hand you get a chance to demonstrate your authority to abuse someone in public. In fact it would be best for this out dated style of the man-about-town to remain in the closed confines of the village as a way of deception. In the works mentioned above, one can see the silly grins of self-mockery of Yue Minjun, from which one finds the reality of teasing the icon. These are probably the characteristics of social expression and mass culture today.


2         Bright Sunny Days


This category is Yue Minjun’s representative works as they possess great wisdom and ability of generalization. Among the four pieces in the Memories Series, Fluttering Red Flags shows a man with a silly grin wearing red flags fluttering on poles planted on his head. It is a picture of joyous song and dance. Brain Sea depicts the great leader Mao Zedong swimming freely in the water in  the mental sea of the icon. This guy has had the sea of his brain swum by Mao Zedong, unnaturally filling it with the thought of Mao Zedong? This is the brain that was the darling of revolution. Festival has the icon’s head releasing festival balloons rising gradually. In our memories only on May Day, International Labor Day, October First National Day would one see scenes of such grand celebrations. Long live has the head of an icon filled with thousands of pairs of hads stretching upwards holding the little red books, as though amidst shouts of “wansui, wansui, maozhuxi wansui”(Long live! Long live! Long live Chairman Mao!) the four pieces of Memories Series are the collective memories of an entire generation who, no matter how many years later or how far they may have gone, would go crazy the moment thy see such a scene. This is the unified recollection from those bright sunny days. The Sun places a red round sun in the background and 800 million people singing and marching forward in the radiating light. They sing loudly in unison: “The east wind blows, the battle drum rolls, who in the world is afraid of who anyway? If it isn’t that the people are afraid of American imperialists, it’s the American imperialists being afraid of the people…” it is therefore in this kind of work that can really communicate Yue’s recollection of the icon and the source of silly grins. As a matter of fact, the people care not if the icon is smart or silly, but rather if it is useful or not. The people would need to make a choice that is either political or of ordinary daily life as according to their own needs.


3  Self-mockery and Ennui


Yue’s early work Riding the Fish(title newly given), whose original title the artist himself has forgotten, is a wonderful painting. The icon is seen in a lady’s swimming costume riding a giant gold fish wearing a broad sweet smile, sailing across the oceans. What a blissful world this is! Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea shows eight icons each riding an ostrich looking joyous as though after a bountiful harvest. Perhaps they are talking about each other’s heroic deeds forgetting that they are immortals who are having a jolly good time in the world of mortals. Morning Sun has a group of people squeezing in a chimney with each of them craning his head to face the morning sun basking as well as laughing at the same world. In Surrender, acrowd stands before a Cezanne painting showing gestures of capitulation while laughing and giggling heartily. On the one hand, they get opportunities and money from such surrender, on the other they are mocking at the dilemma of the kind and brave resistance fighters. It is as though in this silly laughter they transcend their self-mockery and ennui with some elements of conspiracy and deception. Actually no matter what expression or gesture Yue sets for his laughter, it betrays the inner being of self-mockery and the genuineness of ennui that one feels on the way to success.


The initial thinking behind Yue’s creations is: “Life has been rendered completely tasteless even to the point of absurdity by icons, do I not sneer back at icons and laugh heartily at them. My motive is merely to desecrate icons with icons so that society be more interesting.” I feel Yue Minjun has demonstrated vividly in a series of works: the characteristics of social expression and mass cultures-Terracotta Soldiers, bright and sunny days-Memories Series and self-mockery and ennui-Riding the Fish, while revealing the reality of helplessness and powerlessness in an age of mass culture that has lost its idols and heroes. One can clearly sense in Yue Minjun’s works the authenticity of subversion, self-mockery, irony, distortion, sarcasm, emptiness and non-history. Qualitatively, icons could refer to poverty while referring to wealth. Quantitatively, there are numerous things that icons could repeatedly refer to, and yet what they refer to is invariably canonized but the variety is small. When the people make the mocking of icons part of their everyday conduct, they really wake from their dreams and begin to say the things that normal people should be saying. But the sober are lonely, revelation will cause the lonely to distance themselves from the masses, although to desecrate icons with icons in the thought and art of the sober appears to an act of wisdom and talent. Nonetheless, the society would not thus become more interesting, nor would this ensure a better tomorrow.




Dawn, 28 September 2002

Written by Zhang Qing

Translated by Teo Han Wue

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