Yue Minjun & The infectious power of laughter

Yue Minjun - Amazing Laughter, 2009, Photo Matthew Grapengieser
Yue Minjun – A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver, Canada, photo: CC BY-SA 2.0) by Matthew Grapengieser

About Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun was born in Daqing in Heilongjiang, China in 1962. Yue moved from place to place for most of his life because his family had to move from oilfield to oilfield to find work. Before working as an electrician, he graduated from Hebei Normal University in 1989, where he studied oil painting.

What inspired him to create his laughing self-portraits?

1989 was the same year in which China was left shocked by the infamous student-led demonstrations and the suppression of such on Tiananmen Square. These movements played a large part in the inspiration and mood of Yue’s work. To fight the dark mood of the hour, the dark reality of the time, he created vibrant self-images embodying an almost mania; The laughing image.

The different meanings of laughter

Laughter never necessarily means happiness. Laughter can be nervous. It can be spiteful. It can be healing. A smile or a laugh can be genuine but can also be a mask. They can mask feelings of loss, feelings of helplessness and feelings of confusion. Although the smile on Yue’s sculptures and paintings has often been interpreted as a joke or bliss, the meaning behind the smile often is so much deeper.

Yue’s influences

Yue was influenced by the Chinese modern art revolution, during which old ideas were being broken down and new thoughts were being created. He grew up when market economic policies were beginning to release and there was accelerated development. This was also a period of global economic prosperity. These social and economic changes that were happening globally, especially within China, pushed artists like Yue Minjun to quickly grow and evolve. Within this group of artists, Yue is without a doubt one of the most successful. He is also known as an influential member of the Cynical Realism movement.

Self portraits & using humor as a tool

His famous self-portraits take place in various settings, with an infamous expression of wide-toothed laughter. The figures featured in these self-portraits with disproportionately large faces, gleefully open mouths and eyes closed, have become recognizable to admirers worldwide. Throughout his work, Yue utilizes humor as a tool to convey a tempestuous stage in modern China.

Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California, photo: Gregory Gorman

Sculptures outside of China

In more recent years, Yue’s sculptures have become the most famous and most visible works worldwide. His sculpture A-mazing Laughter is a permanent installation in Vancouver, Canada. Yue’s Warriors were installed at LongHouse Reserve in New York.

Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, LongHouse Reserve garden, East Hampton, NY, USA
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, LongHouse Reserve garden, East Hampton, NY, USA

Analysis

In portraying himself within his paintings, he allows himself more freedom of expression. Through this expression, he can look at himself and society. He can question reality, and the laugh that is portrayed in his portraits and sculptures is relatable for his countrymen and women who have experienced the changes in society. The smile that is so large and convincing often has something else behind it. Sometimes in any given situation, all we can really do is smile.

Selected works

Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Pete and Repeat, 2009 at Zabludowicz Collection, London. Photo- Thierry Bal
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, Zabludowicz Collection, London, 2009, photo: Thierry Bal
Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005 (detail)
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors (detail), 2005, Zabludowicz Collection, London, photo: Thierry Bal
Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, Chatsworth House 2
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, Chatsworth House, United Kingdom, photo: CC BY 2.0 by Paul Stevenson
Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California, photo: Robert Berg
Yue Minjun - Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California
Yue Minjun – Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005, installation view, Donum Estate, California, photo: Robert Berg

Video: Interview with Yue Minjun from 2012

10 min 51 sec

Yue Minjun opens up about his work and how little he received of his 5.9 million USD record-breaking Execution work at Sotheby’s1.

All images: Yue Minjun unless otherwise noted.

More by Yue Minjun

Footnotes

  1. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.5.html/2007/contemporary-art-evening-auction-l07024

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