Yue Minjun Laughs First and Last

In the era of reform after the Glorious Leader’s death, a band of Chinese artists dared to depart from Social Realism and let the light of individualism shine through their work. They were the Stars Group, who for their boldness were quelled by the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983. In response, avant-garde frontrunners gave birth to the ’85 Movement, even more abstract and individualistic than their predecessors’. The aftermath of Tian An’ Men put an end to that.

The early nineties found China’s artistic edge dulled by perpetual blunting of their hopes. When every good intention and struggle for freedom is met with brute censorship, the only sane option is to accept and expect the worst before anything better can manifest. Thus was the Cynical Realism movement born.

Yue Minjun took the vanguard in establishing Cynical Realism, making a home for it with other artists at Yuan Ming Yuan, a ramshackle community on the outskirts of Beijing. The inevitable police raid only managed to stir up attention and admiration for the movement, as well as Yue’s career.

Today his work is arguably the most globally identified with Chinese contemporary art. It’s a branding issue – virtually all of his work features a self-portrait, often with several clones on the canvas, and they’re all smiling wide, always. It’s a visually striking and memorably familiar subject that burns itself on the sub-conscious.

Only the distracted see those smiles as genuine and unaffected. Yue’s sublime technique easily reveals the stretching and muscular tension such exaggerated expressions demand. The smiles are products of searing irony and wry, mocking humor, a wordless defiance of the authority-for-authority’s sake that once compromised the world of the Chinese artist.

But don’t fret for Yue. To take in the consistently pinkish-red skin tones of his homunculi is to know that he and the artists he represents are as healthy and vital as freshly suckled babes. Then there’s the fact that he is currently the most expensive of China’s modern artists at auction, fetching 2.9 million pounds for “Execution” (1995) last October at Sotheby’s. It all begs the question: if he’s truly a cynical realist, will he be thanking the people who made all of it possible?

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