Yue Minjun

In the early 1990s Yue Mingjun was part of the artistic community at Yuan Ming Yuan. This area on the outskirts of Beijing is a large park where young artists from all over China rented cheap housing from the local farmers. Apart from the low rents, the place had the great advantage of being for from the attentive eye of the authority. Eventually, the increasing reputation of the place did bring it to the attention of the police and, after a series of raids, the Yuan Ming Yuan community was broken up.

Yue Mingjun moved to another outlying area, Tongxian, along with some fifty other artists. This time, however, the income from the sales of paintings enabled almost all of them to have cars, t travel. They have perhaps lost much of their old idealism. their social standing has risen, and though still subject to police surveillance they can live unmolested.

The full-toothed laughter of the cloned in Yue Minjun's work (you can actually count all thirty-two teeth) rings false - especially as in real life the artist laughs very rarely, and this version of himself (each clone is a self-portrait) seems to exists on canvas alone. LI Xianting, one of the greatest of contemporary Chinese art theorists, says of Yue Minjun that 'he constructs his artistic language as a self-ironic respnse to the spirtual vacuum and folly of modern-day China.' It is as if the mass of contradictions faced everyday were so absurdly dense that they led to a sort of pathological dissociation from self, expressed through these grotesque portraits.

The technique used is similar to that in advertising and propaganda posters: sharp outlines and rather even fields of color which give a 'Pop art' effect. In the works of recent years, the simplified human figures are generally all dressed alike and painted in a limited range of colors: the skin is a very kitsch pink, the lips are red and the disproportionately large inside of the mouth is done in perfect black. The gaping mouth occupies most of the face and is contrasted with the eyes, slits that are so tightly shut that vision is impossible. The visual impact of the works is enhanced not only by their mere size - some are enormous - but also by the complexity of their composition. These figures - as unseeing as they are insincerely jovial - are often in poses taken from Christian iconography or from popular Chinese art: the riddled body of St. Sebastian becomes a jolly scarecrow complete with totally-unfazed birds perching on the shoulders, whilst the 'greetings' putti of Chinese folklore are shown astride fat 'good luck' fish and painted as caricature portraits of the artist. Yue draws freely on the whole range of images that have formed his visual heritage over the years - and obviously one component of that heritage is the forced optimism of the figures in the art of revolutionary realism.

In his very recent series life (1999), the artist has broken the previous compositions down into smaller canvasses. There is a paradoxical relation between title and work, which only serves to heighten the sense of the absurd. Again these are self-portraits, but this time the focus is on the posing of the body, shown in forced, impractical attitudes. The skin tone has changed and become yellowish (which is more what one would expect of a Chinese portrait) - but the color is that of someone caught in a glaring headlight. Hence the light is as artificial as the expression on the face and the posture of the body. The effect of depth is achieved through the use of shadow, whilst, as already mentioned, the actual painting technique tends to render the surface of the work very flat.

Monica Dematte
(in 48a esposizione internazionale d'arte, La Biennal di Venezia)