By Karen Smith

Yue Minjun produced the first laughing face at the beginning of the 1990s. Although a number of the familiar characteristics were already taking shape—the pink hue of the skin, the smart rows of toothpaste white teeth, framed by a smooth, neat crop of black hair—at first, the features were not his own, but those of friends: artists within his immediate community, each of whom was grappling with a brave new world of independence in a society that viewed individualism with grave suspicion. Early on, Yue Minjun revealed himself to be a very distinctive character. It was therefore natural that as he work evolved, his own features should transcend that of others in his paintings. This face, his face, and that incorrigible laugh, has since become one of the foremost icons of contemporary Chinese art and, in many ways, a symbol of the shifting sensibilities of an entire generation. These sensibilities germinated in tandem with a sense of freedom that was spreading across all society in the 1990s, but in particular that was permeating Yue Minjun’s generation, as economic change began to exert an irrevocable force upon the lives of, and the opportunities afforded, the Chinese people. Whilst the socio-economic change had its roots in the 1980s, it gained greater velocity from the beginning of the 1990s, as people became used to the idea of reform, less apprehensive of change and, as a result, more ready to embrace the opportunities it proffered.

       Yue Minjun is a central character in the new wave of creatively attuned self-styled individuals to emerge in the early 1990s, and who were ultimately responsible for driving contemporary art practice in China into its important secondary phase. Today, he is widely acclaimed as a leading painter of his generation and the era, counted amongst the handful of contemporary Chinese giants that include Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Yang Shaobin. Here, he describes how, against the odds, his style found form, through to the significance of works created for this, his first solo exhibition in China.



The first laughing face had complex origins. You can find it in the early paintings I created as far back as 1990. Just prior to that time, a huge exhibition of new art[1] took place in Beijing—“The Big Chinese Art Exhibition”[2] as it was titled. I didn’t see it myself, but there were articles about it in all the art magazines of the day, together with numerous reproductions of the works that were exhibited in the show. One painting in particular made a great impression on me. That was Geng Jianyi’s four-panel painting “The Second State”. This is a series of four heads that each fill the canvas with a face creased in laughter. It made me think of the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future, which takes the form of a sculpture of a smiling, pot-bellied Buddha. These can be seen at the entrance to every Buddhist temple in China.[3] His smile is meant to remind people of the need to hold dear the truths of Buddhist teachings in all the goals we set ourselves in life; to remind us that even in the face of stress and adversity, we should not loose control, nor give into negative feelings. Geng Jianyi’s painting invited comparison with this image of the Maitreya Buddha, yet at the same time resonated a mood of bitter frustration that was a common emotion amongst our generation. It further alluded to the Daoist belief that a smile was 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 internalizing a problem, which saps energy and allows negative thoughts to breed. The idea of finding a means to navigate the obstacle that life throws in your path, of not taking things to heart, is central to Daoist philosophy. We laugh even when tragedy strikes, not because we are without sympathy, or empathy, but because we are profoundly conscious human frailty and helplessness where confronted with adverse situations. How else to protect the soul from pain and suffering?

By the time I saw Geng Jianyi’s painting in 1989, the necessity of this approach had acquired particular prescience. Following the events of 1989, our generation was subsumed in a period of chaos, wracked by contradictions and complex emotions. We each instinctively felt that despite being availed of an opportunity to assert our independent, as long as we were marginalized by our choice of lifestyle, our desire to explore individual creative impulses, our existence could never be entirely happy. In this context, up against a society that had been taught to frown upon those who deviated from the norm, 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. But against the reality of the times, which was so entirely chaotic and strange, it was hard to hold onto that faith. I decided that my laughing faces would serve as a reminder of a better tomorrow within my circle just as the Maitreya Buddha in the temples do, and would resonate with those individuals who had learned to laugh because they understood that almost any other response was futile.

The main circle of friends in my life at that time were the artists living in the same community as I was at artists’ village at Yuanmingyuan. Before coming to the village, in 1991, I was employed as a teacher in a State oil enterprise—Huabei Shiyou in Hebei province. All my life I had lived in a State-run danwei[4], first with my parents as a child in the oil fields in Daqing in the Northeast of China, then in Hubei province when they were transferred in 1969, and finally in Beijing in 1972. After school, in 1980 I was sent to work at the Haiyang State Oil Company in Tianjin, and was transferred to the oil refinery in Hebei in 1983. It was there that I persuaded my director to send me to university to study art. When I graduated, I returned to my danwei in Hebei, to work in its affiliated teaching training college. I lasted just over a year as a teacher before deciding to move to Beijing. The problem for me was that these enterprises were uniformly operated within an extremely narrow structure that was largely inflexible, and incapable of making any concession to individuals within its employ, because all people were all supposed to be equal and the same. Of course they weren’t all equal: everything depended upon maintaining good relations within a complex web of inter-personal connections. This meant that the pressure of existing in a potential minefield, where everyone had to appear to do the right thing, to conform, consumed the working life of many individuals. Everybody in China lived their life this way at that time. Which is why the act of smiling, laughing to mask feelings of helplessness has such significance for my generation. Until the 1990s, the possibility of an alternative was almost inconceivable: people were encouraged to believe it was impossible to exist outside of the system. There was no place for individual ambition within the socialist machine. For this reason, most people could not conceive of stepping outside the confines of the State structure; less still to move to Yuanmingyuan with the aim of becoming an independent artist. Yet for some reason that is exactly what I felt compelled to do.

I guess you are wondering what made me different? I can only conclude that I was born that way! My parents are fond of saying that even as a young child, I was totally capable of taking care of and amusing myself without getting into any trouble. I would trundle off to kindergarten with my two younger brothers, prepare meals for us, and do chores around the house. It all came naturally for neither of my parents told me that these were things I ought to do. My independence proved a great asset, and gave me all the experience I needed to be able to live on my own. Thus although it must have seemed alarmingly radical to challenge convention and go it alone, to me the idea of going it alone at the artists’ village was the most natural thing in the world. I certainly didn’t see what to others were the obvious obstacles involved. I guess I did have some kind of a desire to rebel, although I don’t think it could be described as a conscious awareness of self; of myself as being entirely different from others…or of having a wish to stand out from others. A quiet confidence perhaps, but I was primarily concerned about my future, about the possibilities that might be open to me if I was open to them. I didn’t want to become resigned to life as a worker in the way my parents had had to be. I remember thinking clearly that if our society could not change, or accept change as part of modernization and advance, then there would be no point in striving for anything at all: life would just carry on the way it was; the dull eternity of an entirely meaningless existence.

But society was already altered by the effects of economic reform that had been implemented through the 1980s, and by issues that the students raised in 1989. I felt that such change could not be entirely erased from the collective memory, nor that taste of freedom eradicated.

       So there I was, teaching art in Hebei, feeling entirely unfulfilled and wondering what to do. And then completely by chance I stumbled upon the artists’ community at Yuanmingyuan and I knew that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for.

The village was both a familiar and comfortable environment for me. When my family came to Beijing in 1972, we lived at the Oil and Petroleum University[5], which is close to Yuanmingyuan. All the original palace building and gardens had long since been destroyed, but the natural landscape remained very beautiful. Like many students of that time, in my youth I used to go there to make drawings and paint from nature. This familiarity with the area made the move even more natural.

I came to Beijing in 1991 to visit a friend who was living in a rented room in a small yard in the village. I immediately noticed the artists who were living in the neighborhood. Yang Shaobin was renting a studio in the same yard, which doubled as his home. It was exactly as I had imagined the life of an artist to be, and it all seemed so great that I decided to make the move from Hebei. Compared with life at the danwei, it didn’t seem so very hard to be an independent artist. The rent was low, and the environment was everything the danwei wasn’t. Most important was that there, I was free to decide how I spent my days, and of especial delight at the time, how long I grew my hair!


In the beginning I experimented with the styles of other artists I knew living in the village. These artists also became the subjects of my paintings. Initially, it was difficult to determine my own preferences, or to see where my sensibilities would lead me. That changed when I began painting myself. Even then, this was less about me than achieving a form that could express my ideas, but the smile was definitely there. It was an impulsive first step but I realized it was something I could work with.

A major turning point occurred in a painting that featured a row of figures: the type of line-up so common our communal experience of life. The appearance of conformity and abeyance, yet so often enacted without conviction of purpose. Here, I chose to depict the same figure, similar stance, and same features, to highlight the inanity of such parades. To use one figure in such a manner lent them the appearance of cartoon caricatures: satirizing humanity to tell a particular story. It occurred to me that such stories about social reality outweighed that of referencing specific individuals who would never be identifiable to an audience. A caricature could express so much more humanity, and having decided that this would be my ultimate subject, why not create a caricature of myself to convey the stories I wanted to relate. This is how the figure emerged as the motif that has become the recognizable feature of my work. It subsequently dictated how all aspects of my art evolved.

As with many cartoon characters, the expression changes very little. The power and the charm of what cartoon characters are able to express is the essence human nature. Where these characters are evoked in simple, stylized forms, the ways in which their creators makes them interact with the world becomes paramount. The situations in which they are placed, and the nature of the stories they act out, have to reinforce the attitude we understand them to encapsulate. Thus I approach each series of works like writing a play, or mapping out a storyboard. Much of the inspiration comes from my own frame of mind, from moods, or incidents I have experienced. Then there are also scenes that I have observed unfolding around me. All of these things can inspire a series of paintings. Many of the works in this exhibition are about hats. My interest in the nature of hats was piqued at the time of the Olympics in Athens, where the ranking of medal winners was defined by a hat shaped like an olive. It made me think about how hats can denote status, a social position, as well as those that signify nationality, or an ethnic group. For individuals, hats, more than any other accessory, are extensions of the wearer’s personality: people never choose a hat lightly. A hat becomes an expression of what we perceive to be our look, our style, and that enhances our physical proportions. So if the process of choosing a hat is never casual, or random, the placing of various hats on the figures in my paintings points to their role in asserting and reinforcing social differentials, and the absurdity of the ideas that govern the socio-political protocol surrounding hats.

The flood of kungfu films that have recently received so much attention in the West inspired a second group of paintings in the exhibition. It was my girlfriend who pointed out that the original Chinese name for kungfu means “classical gymnastic ballet”. Traditionally, this is less about fighting than about engaging in an athletic dance in which grace and agility determine the superior master, not the ability to demonstrate physical prowess and damage one’s opponent. Many of the original moves were derived from observations of the motion and gestures of animals and birds, for whom such skills were applied to self-preservation, not conscious aggression. Through time this dance was reconfigured as a fighting art, primarily for reasons of self-preservation and survival, because it represented to the Chinese people a source of national strength and power. Today, against the pre-eminent power of the glamour of action films and on-screen violence, the essence of kungfu has been distorted. I decided to make a parody of the animal and bird postures that originally inspired the “dance”. The contortions to which I subject the figures highlights how far the art has come from the innocence of its roots.

       There are numerous other symbols and references in my work. One example is the painting titled “Within and Without the Great Wall”. During the Cultural Revolution, the title was given to many propaganda paintings. The message was that within and beyond the wall China was a vast and mighty land, which was a very political statement in terms of the national ideology. Yet at the same time, within China, the people’s spirit of positivism and enthusiasm for the cause was subconsciously tinged with a sense of anxiety and stress. I am constantly drawn to explore polemic sensations like these.

To date I have painted so many laughing faces, but increasingly this feature is only as important as the story it tells. It is essential that an artist knows how to move forward with their work or how else does one makes progress? You paint a few paintings like this…a few like that…but then what do you do?

I feel my style has matured, yet the challenges remain: how to keep developing the motif, and keep up the supply of fresh stories for my figure to act out. In the early stage of his development, the element of political satire was definitely more pronounced in the paintings. Through time this has given way to broader responses to the social situations and conundrums of today: to my attitude towards society, and the culture of the times. In the 1990s, society was not so open. Today we are overwhelmed with information. We can’t hold on to the simple perceptions we started out with. Today the onus is on exploring new ground, with new ideas and new philosophies that push each generation into new territory. But what is most rewarding is that through the process of that search, new stories are always just around the corner.

[1] New art was the name given to the thrust of the avant-garde movement, where “new” contrasted the “old” that had been erected by Mao Zedong in the form of Socialist Realism.

[2] “China / Avant Garde” is the more commonly used translation in English.

[3] Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, who will appear at a time when the Buddhist teachings have been lost, in order to reestablish the Dharma. There is another legend in Buddhism concerning a bonze sculpture from the Five Dynasties period known as Hip-Pocket Bonze (bu dai he shang), but who called himself Chang Dingzi. He always carried a hip pocket to beg alms, so he was believed to carry the riches of the world in his pocket. He is said to be the reincarnation of the Maitreya Buddha.

[4] A Chinese-styled Communist-inspired work unit

[5] Shiyou Xueyuan

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