With his iconic self-portraits, Yue Minjun has established himself as one of China’s most prominent artists. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore meets him to find out what lies behind that money-making smile.
From the purple walls of the prestigious Pace Beijing gallery, a Chinese Jesus leans towards the viewer. He wears a crown of thorns – yet the rest of the portrait rubs uncomfortably against this religiously loaded symbol. This Jesus has a raw pink naked torso, white Y-fronts and a toothy grin recognisable to anyone even vaguely acquainted with Chinese art as the trademark of Yue Minjun. The figure’s eyes are scrunched closed in hilarity and his mouth is stretched in laughter – as if there is nothing more absurd, more droll, than crucifixion.
Of course, little is sacred to Yue, the Beijing-based artist whose paintings sell for millions, and who has spent over two decades placing his now-iconic smiling self-portrait into myriad landscapes. For his new works, Yue turns his cryptic, disparaging eye towards Christianity. But Christ! Jesus? “I wanted to be a star,” shoots back Yue when we meet in a café located in the elite complex in which he lives with his wife and child. “The biggest star in this world is Jesus, so I thought maybe I could hitch onto that express train of his.”
He isn’t joking. In person, Yue is sombre and serious, only occasionally cracking into the wryest of smiles. “It’s normal rather than egotistical,” he insists. “I think that it’s human nature, because anybody can replace somebody else and is actually worthless. This world will keep on going without any single individual.” Indeed. The paintings seem to show a grotesquely exaggerated everyman: a mass-produced symbol for a society descending into delirious madness where each person is expendable. And where no one seems to know whether to laugh or cry.
Yue first hit upon his ‘logo’, the sardonic laughing face, in the early 1990s after coming across Geng Jianyi’s The Second State: Big Red Double Happiness (1987). In Geng’s work, a face’s expression shifts from vacant to smiling. For Yue, it articulated the ‘meaning of misery, of absurdity’. He took the idea and ran with it. Self-parodies include Yue laughing as the Pope; Yue laughing as Marilyn Monroe; Yue, decapitated, holding his laughing head and skipping under a bright blue sky.
In 2007, history was made when his Execution set a record as the most expensive work ever sold by a living Chinese artist (it went for US$5.9 million, but it has since been surpassed). A sardonic pop-art interpretation of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, the painting shows both the executioners and executed laughing in unison.
Such heady celebrity is a far cry from the artist’s austere upbringing. Yue was born in 1962 to oil workers in Heilongjiang province, moving ‘from city to city, from one exploitation area to another’ in the country’s north. As a young adult, in a giddily daring move, he dropped his work as an oil company electrician to join the first marginalised settlers in Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan art district.
“I had a little fear, of course,” he recalls. “If you left your work unit, you had to think of ways to fend for yourself. I had to start a new life. But I loved art too much.” It was a time when the residue of the Cultural Revolution still lingered; Yue’s poppy, bright paintings hit a nerve by directly referencing the ubiquitous propaganda of the Communist Party. “Propaganda posters used happy smiles to cover up something else,” he explains. “Personally, I didn’t have an independent life at that time. Everybody had a feeling of constraint. The smiles concealed reality.”
How times have changed. Browse any 798 gift shop today and you’ll find Yue’s gaudy army of self-portraits mocking the buyer from an array of pencil cases, T-shirts and posters. Critics claim the artist does little to innovate, merely reproducing a formula that has now become a bankable brand. Has he sold out? “Maybe I have turned people’s miseries and frustrations into something that can be consumed and bought,” he muses. “All my works have a feel of pop culture, which is often used on products and commodities. I think that art has borrowed consumption to enter a broader state.”
So, does he support the rampant commercialisation of art? “Of course I’m in favour,” he retorts, “or why else would I print my works onto painting albums and notebooks? Commerce is a new state of culture that’s taking shape. The state I want is to get more things discussed: many things we can’t discuss on this current cultural platform. Maybe discussion will be easier when transformed into consumption. On one hand, it’s a kind of happiness. More importantly, it is a channel. We have to find a new channel.”