Yue Minjun: behind the painted smile

Yue Minjun pictured in his studio in Beijing, May 2007

Pale and weary from an exhausting promotional campaign in Hong Kong, Yue Minjun looks nothing like the “laughing man” of his celebrated paintings. As he works his way through signing a stack of catalogues in the fiercely air-conditioned boardroom of his sponsor, it is hard to imagine him breaking into the guffaw of his pink-skinned caricature, eyes tight shut and white teeth bared, which he has described as both a self-portrait and an alter ego. But there is often bitterness behind the Pagliacci smile, and his character is portrayed as the fool who, for better or worse, has become inured to Yue’s bleak version of the modern world.

“My work is to do with the fundamental agony of being human and the sense of confusion that comes with living in our society,” he says, speaking in September at the start of his first solo show in Hong Kong, “The Tao of Laughter”. It is rather a weighty message for visitors to the crowded shopping mall where the exhibition is being staged. But Harbour City – the vast collection of luxury waterfront outlets frequented by mainland Chinese tourists on shopping trips to the tax-free haven – makes, he thinks, a perfect backdrop. “The shopping centre is the heart of human activities in today’s world,” he says. “I want people to look at my art and then pause for reflection as they look for luxury handbags.”

The 50-year-old former electrician is among the biggest stars in Chinese contemporary art today. He belongs to a generation of artists who grew up during the cultural revolution and have taken the world by storm as they track their country’s radical transformation, escaping the limits of socialist realism under which most of them were trained and coming up with their own distinct styles. Yue’s repeated use of the same motif since the early 1990s and his prolific output – there are several hundred paintings featuring the “laughing man” – make his work highly recognisable and now highly desirable to international collectors and curators.

Yue has become a fixture in any survey of contemporary Chinese art, such as the inaugural show at the new Saatchi Gallery in London in 2008, which attracted more than half-a-million visitors. The previous year “The Execution”, probably his most famous painting, sold at Sotheby’s in London for £2.9m, roughly the same price as Cézanne’s “Maisons dans la verdure” sold for in New York a month later.

“The Execution”, which Yue finished in 1995, is widely seen as his most political work. A row of men is lined up against a scarlet wall, laughing, but also looking vulnerable in nothing but grubby briefs. A number of fully clothed men are about to shoot them with imaginary rifles and they, too, think the whole thing is a game, judging by the expression of the one executioner who faces the viewer. It is difficult not to associate this image with the 1989 massacre in Beijing: the wall in the picture is a similar colour to the real Tiananmen Gate and those who died in the military crackdown on a peaceful demonstration were mostly unarmed young students and workers. It also has obvious art-historical references to Manet’s “The Execution of Maximilian” (1868-69), and Goya’s “The Third of May 1808”, both paintings made in response to the political events of their times.

Li Xianting, a well-known Chinese art critic, counts Yue, along with other artists such as the painter Fang Lijun, as members of the “cynical realism” movement, formed partly in reaction to the trauma of 1989. But Yue refuses to be labelled and has always avoided making direct comments on politics. The closest he ever came to saying something negative about the Tiananmen massacre was in an interview with Richard Bernstein of The New York Times in 2007. “My mood changed at that time,” he commented. “I was very down. I realised the gap between reality and the ideal.”

Speaking about the subject in Hong Kong, he remains elusive. “There are many people who want Chinese artists to speak out for them,” he says. “They always have this need to look at my art through a political lens. It’s restricting.”

He ventures a little further: “I think all conflicts are not one-sided but a reflection of current conditions. I’m not saying [Tiananmen] was not important but the main thing is for the two sides to move beyond the conflict and find resolution.”

Compromise, however, does not sit well with the convention that artists speak up for justice and freedom of expression, particularly when there are plenty in China who do exactly this, such as Ai Weiwei, persecuted for his criticism of China’s authoritarian rule, and the jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, who inspired many around the world with his courage. But Yue remains unapologetic. “I paint about the universal experience. Why do I have to be explicit all the time?”

Born in 1962 to two oilfield workers in north-eastern China, Yue was a child during the cultural revolution, but grew up in a country where Chairman Mao was still idolised. He studied at the fine arts department of Hebei Normal University, and was inspired by the works of another Chinese painter, Geng Jianyi, whose faces are more grimacing than laughing, representing a deep, internal anguish. In the early 1990s, soon after graduating, Yue moved to Beijing when the country relaxed its rules on internal migration, and shared a studio in a derelict farmhouse with other poor artists including Yang Shaobin. Today, he has two full-time assistants working for him in a custom-built studio and lives in a luxurious Beijing mansion.

There is no doubt that Yue and his fellow artists have done well out of the art market’s China fever in a way that their Russian counterparts never did. The changes to Yue’s personal circumstance parallel the nation’s own transformation.

“To me, capitalism can mean democracy, fairness,” he says. “It’s not all bad. At the same time, it has become the new God. Instead of going to temples, people in China pay their tribute to Mammon in the shopping mall. Religion has been replaced by this vacant materialism.”

'Memory-2' (2000), oil on canvas

Hong Kong, one of the most capitalist cities in the world, is, for Yue, the new China. His show of a dozen paintings, all featuring the laughing man in a variety of situations, is hung in a room tucked away between the luxury outlets. Each work is accompanied by a poem, mostly despondent in tone. “All these fools will probably perish trodden down, pulverised by an unspeakable and awesome apocalypse of which menace they are not even aware,” reads one. But what most visitors see are the five giant bronze versions of “the fool” on display in the mall forecourt. These might be viewed as a post-modernist deconstruction of the classical statue but they also form a cutesy backdrop for holiday snaps. The sunny, cartoon-like appearance of the laughing man also makes him perfect for an accessory line. The shopping mall is offering limited-edition Yue Minjun umbrellas and make-up pouches to those who spend over a certain amount, and he has also produced teapot sets in partnership with two galleries in Taiwan and Beijing.

Yue says his ultimate goal is to make the laughing man a household icon. Critics have said that it’s a clever way of debunking the tradition of Communist party mythologising. He says he just wants to spur the unthinking crowd into adopting a more philosophical approach to life. If commercialisation is what it takes, then bring it on. “Some artists are totally market-driven. Others are so supercilious they don’t want anything to do with it. I am somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Yue’s painting portfolio is more diverse than many art critics give him credit for. A recent retrospective at China’s Chengdu Contemporary Art Centre showed works which hark back to the Chinese ink landscape tradition, and a range of other pieces will be on show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, where his first major European retrospective opens this month.

Marcello Kwan, a specialist in Asian contemporary art at Christie’s, puts Yue’s importance partly down to his arrival in the early 1990s “when Chinese artists wanted to bring in a new era which challenges the rigidity left behind by the previous decades. His laughing man is his answer to Mao Zedong, who used to be the idol. Using himself as the basis for a new idol is a very interesting subversion,” he says.

Yue comes closest to saying something subversive when he describes the role of laughter in his works. “If you are faced with a situation you cannot change, then laughter may be the only possible reaction,” he says. “But if many people start laughing, it can become a proactive force for change.” His creature might lack the wit and wisdom of a Shakespearean fool, and any wry comment on the human condition is hidden behind the laughter. But maybe that’s the point in a country whose critics are silenced.

Enid Tsui is the FT’s Hong Kong correspondent.

‘Yue Minjun’ runs November 14 to March 17 2013 at the Fondation Cartier, Paris, http://fondation.cartier.com

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