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January 10, 2010

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Yue challenges the changes

A cynicism about life in modern China dominates the paintings of Yue Minjun, down to the illusion he portrays of himself widely smiling on canvas. He continues to question in his art the many changes taking place in society, a stance that has made him both rich and famous, Nancy Zhang reports.

A curious exhibition is on display in Beijing's Today Art Museum. Laid out like an archeological excavation, the objects "discovered" are everyday items from our modern world: phones, TVs and brass instruments.

But they come with surprising descriptions. Thus a computer becomes "a special tool for mankind to communicate with ghosts."

By way of commentary, there's a display of prehistoric men, squatting or dancing with dinosaurs and sporting wide enigmatic grins. It is as if they are laughing at the absurdity of it all, including our confusion.

The faces on these men were fashioned after the artist himself, Yue Minjun, one of the most famous contemporary Chinese artists. But in person he rarely laughs and he is less than pleased by the reaction so far to his latest work named Archeological Discovery in AD 3009.

It was so named to invite visitors to imagine they are viewing today's world a thousand years from now and so to find the absurdities in their own perceptions. But, says the artist, most people don't want to see it that way.

"I wanted to show people that education teaches them all the wrong things, that growing up is a lifelong process of undoing the damage," he said. "It's such a waste. But in fact everyone thought this was normal," he added, fully displaying the cynicism about his native society that runs throughout his work.

Dubbed a "cynical realist," a label he has rejected, Yue was among the first batch of Chinese contemporary artists to come to the world's attention. In 2007, his "Execution" painting sold for a record-breaking 2.9 million pounds (US$5.9 million) at London's Sotheby's 10 years after it was bought by an investment banker working in the region.

Most of Yue's works explore contrast and conflict featuring his own face frozen in laughter in many poses and backgrounds.

The smile that made Yue famous has been variously interpreted by art critics, in China and abroad, as a cover for helplessness or to express the illusion of happiness.

Yue has pointed out that the smile has a long history in Chinese Buddhism where the Maitreya Buddha, who can tell the future, is commonly depicted laughing with an inscription saying that one should laugh in the face of reality.

For Yue, the conflict in this complicated smile "creates unpredictable fireworks."

Usually based in Beijing, the artist was in Shanghai recently for the ground-breaking of his latest studio in Jiading District. Recent success has given him the luxury of designing an expansive, Chinese garden style studio in the city "for a warmer winter." We met at a five-star hotel downtown where he was staying but despite the environment he retained the air of the suffering artist troubled by the status quo.

"My generation suffers particularly from dissatisfaction," he said, chain-smoking and brow deeply furrowed. "We went through so many changes and reversals in what was considered right. Most of us don't know why we make mistakes because we can't see the bigger picture."

Articulate and probing, Yue often throws out keen observations.

"Things haven't changed much for the 1980s or 1990s generation of Chinese," he said. "Despite economic progress there has been no deeper understanding of ourselves or of the world. The changes everyone talks about are only in the quantity of things, but there has been no change in their quality."

Yue was born in 1962 in the harsh northern climes of Heilongjiang Province. The son of an oil worker, he also started his working life in the oil industry before quitting it for art school in 1985.

As a small cog in the big industrial wheel of industry, Yue had no chance to see any kind of big picture and it marked the beginnings of the conflict between external social demands and his inner spirit. It was to inspire his life's work.

"Socialist industrialization is a mass movement which must put huge pressure on, or even kill, the individual spirit," he said of those times.

According to Yue, only insensitive souls that choose to remain willingly blind to this pressure can survive. Choosing between such a fate or his own "bizarre" way, he says, "of course I chose my own way - life is so short."

Life was hard as an artist financially when he first graduated in 1989. Art creation was restricted to official government groups and individual artists were unheard of. Yue said he survived on the generosity of friends with more normal jobs, with whom he would stay and eat for a year at a time.

In a rare forgiving moment he says wistfully "the traditional spirit of friendship is a great aspect of Chinese culture, I'm sure it was these informal connections that saved China. But with commercialization this is also disappearing."

The subject of Chinese culture and society consumes this man. His claim to being an artist, he said, lies not in his skill with the paintbrush, which falls far short of other masters, but in the way he questions society. Perhaps this is why his art has been so popular with international audiences which are increasingly curious about the China now emerging.

But his attitudes to China, like that enigmatic smile, are a complicated mesh of patriotism and disgust, hope and despair.

"We're a nation of extremes, of crazy ups and downs," he said. "Everyone has huge hopes for the next year, and the year after that. Who else in the world is like this?

"Who else would have the confidence of a Chinese migrant worker, to leave home and just go to Beijing with a bag and full of dreams?

Despite his popularity abroad he has never considered moving from China.

"It would be suicide," he said. He is a part of this upheaval and its stimulation has endless appeal. This is also why artists camp out in Beijing, the culture center of China.

"I think we are lost. No one knows what the future holds or what they want to express. But that's a good situation, that's what we should explore," he said.

Portrait Of The Artist Through His Career

1962: Born in Heilongjiang Province, China.

1980: Following his father's footsteps, Yue started working as an oil field electrician.

1985: Left the oil industry to study art at Hebei Normal University. Graduated in 1989.

1990: Left a secure job teaching painting at Hebei Normal University to join an artist's colony (known as the Yuanmingyuan Painters' Village) just outside Beijing.

2000: Solo exhibition "Red Ocean-Yue Minjun," Chinese Contemporary, London, England.

2002: Solo exhibition "Soaking In Silly Laughter: Art Singapore 2002," Soobin Art Gallery, Singapore; Solo exhibition "Yue Minjun: Handling," One World Art Center, China.

2003: Solo exhibition "Yue Minjun: Beijing Ironicals," Pr?ss & Ochs Gallery, Berlin, Germany; Solo exhibition "Yue Minjun," Meile Gallery, Switzerland.

2004: Solo exhibition "Yue Minjun: Sculptures & Paintings," Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong, China.

2007: The painting "Execution" fetched the highest price for Chinese art when it was sold for US$5.90 million at London's Sotheby's auction.

2007: First exhibition in the United States, at Queens Museum of Art in New York, named "Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile."


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