As a student during the 1990s, Yue Minjun found himself in a deeply disillusioned China. In the wake of Tiananmen Square, China’s artistic community was shaken to the core. From the trauma of this period emerged a dispossessed generation of artists who came to define a new genre – cynical realism. This new movement acutely felt the loss of the idealism of the ’80s and expressed strongly their detachment, apathy and irony.
Yue Minjun’s work is almost impossible to decipher. The key characteristic, “the laugh”, is at first light hearted, but on closer inspection appears forced, ridiculous or even deranged. The face in the pictures is always Minjun’s. By superimposing ‘the laugh’ onto some of the 20th century’s most famous images, Minjun not only parodies society but also encourages us to laugh with him. But who has the last laugh?
In your pictures the laugh toes the line between joyous and maniacal. Which is it to you? Or is it subject entirely to the interpretation of the viewer?
For me, it is a maniacal laugh, while the meaning at the same time opens to the viewer. I would love to have an interaction with the viewer and let them have their own interpretation.
You have said that the laugh can be laughter at our society. What, to you, are the most laughable aspects of society?
The laugh in my pictures comes from my conception of the society. Traditional culture emphasises the concept of nonentity. All the phenomenon is not real. One can only conceive the truth by getting rid of these phantoms. Laozi (an ancient Chinese philosopher and central figure in Taoism) once said, “If one doesn’t laugh at its absurdity, then it is not Tao.” People can only get rid of the limits of their knowledge and things when they laugh maniacally. At present time, everything makes me laugh.
The theme of this issue of Glass is Promise. Does laughter hold promise or is it the end result?
Laughter is a hope; it’s a hope for the future. The reason I poke fun at the society is because I want to express how much I “love” the excessively strict measures that this country has. But I still believe it’s hope.
How have you found the international response to your work compared with the response on a national scale? And has the response changed over the years now that the world is taking much more interest in China?
Response to my work from China is different from the response abroad, since the cultural background differs. International response tends to perceive my works describing the state of people’s minds in the fast growing China. They have hopes for the future while getting anxious and worried about the present. However, many critics in China view these works as a reflection of Chinese people’s foolishness. As East and West are getting to know each other more deeply nowadays, this difference seems to change. Most people consider my works as irony and criticism of the current culture.
What advice would you give to emerging Chinese artists and do you think things have changed massively since you were starting out?
To emerging artists I would suggest; when learning, people should dare to question and change if necessary even though sometimes it’s against, or in contrast to, what they have been taught. I would suggest to them to trust themselves. Since I started my artistic career the environment has changed much. For example, management of art has become much looser and there are seldom interference cases. Public understanding of art has also gradually been improved beyond imagination, while schools no longer treat art as a forbidden zone. Besides, the involvement with commerce and art collections has provided many supports to art, with which art can get rid of the previous dominant ideological control.
You are now known as one of China’s ‘most important’ artists. How do you feel about this title?
To be an important artist is the dream of everyone who has an art pursuit. One firstly needs public understanding and recognition, and then realises his own value. This title suggests what I have done is meaningful in society.
China is developing at a faster rate than any country in the world’s history and there are fears over losing cultural traditions. How do you feel about this? And do you think art can play a role in preserving the spirit of the nation?
It’s happening too fast, many people are not used to this, and there is a sense of being lost, especially in terms of cultural tradition. But I don’t think we should be too worried, because we can create a new culture, even if it’s completely different from the past. I am looking forward to seeing this culture resurrected like a Phoenix from the flames. Art will help to preserve the spirit of our nation, but that should not be its only purpose.
You come from a movement of artists labelled as cynical realists due to the loss of idealism in China during the ’90s. Would you say this label is accurate for you?
I would rather label myself as “tickled pink”.
Is it possible to be a realistic idealist? To be realistic yet to have hopes for the future?
I am an idealist; I use laughter to conceal my unhappiness. On the surface it may appear as though I have lost hope, but this is because I am waiting for its return. It’s also for building a new hope for the future, hope of equality.
by Nicola Kavanagh
All Images: ©Yue Minjun, courtesy Pace Beijing Gallery