Yue Minjun interview – A Great Laugh, A Glorious Death

by Iona Whittaker 爱安阿

“L’Ombre du Fou Rire” (Nov 14, 2012 — Mar 13, 2013) is a survey of the work of Yue Minjun currently on show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Through 40+ paintings spanning his oeuvre from its early stages to the present, audiences may witness Yue’s artistic practice — its grimacing faces a favorite image in the media and market — at first hand. Randian editor Iona Whittaker met Yue Minjun at his Beijing studio to discuss the exhibition and his work in general.

Portrait of Yue Minjun in his studio, Beijing, 2007 (© Yue Minjun; photo courtesy of Yue Minjun Studio)

Iona Whittaker: Tell me about this exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. How did it come about and what has been the process of its creation?

Yue Minjun: The process began in 2008. Fei Dawei contacted me, saying that the Cartier Foundation wanted to have an exhibition — a new one, or perhaps a retrospective. A lot of people have already seen the works, for example in the media or in books and magazines, but have never seen the originals. I feel it’s worthwhile to have the opportunity to present the real works to them at first hand. At that time, I also thought about making some new works, but I felt that if I did so, maybe it would be too much like “performing” to attract the audience. So I adopted the opposite approach: I avoided having any involvement in or opinion on the selection and arrangement of the exhibition. I left the curator to present the works in their own way. Just before the opening of the exhibition, I spoke to the curator; I asked him, “Why are you interested in my work, and from which point of view?” He answered that he had no idea, and that it was as if as I had been watching them.

IW: What do you mean by not wanting to “perform” to the audience by including new work?

YM: If I were to have created new work for the exhibition, it’s sort of as if there is a single purpose for it. I just wanted to show the natural progression of my work. The latest painting in the exhibition is from this year, but that was simply down to the curator’s selection, not my having asked for it to be included.

IW: So, what is your reaction to the works that were chosen? Were your expectations confirmed? Did anything surprise you?

YM: I feel that it’s a very simple way to display the work. The placement of the paintings in the space does not conjure any sort of mystery or imposed reading. It is largely chronological and straightforward.

IW: It’s very trusting of you to let the curator take total control. Did you have any doubts about it?

YM: I deliberately had no expectations about it. I really wanted to perceive a different understanding and cultural background as reflected through the choices made. I feel happy because they didn’t impose anything beyond the actual content of the work — it is an honest and sensitive presentation.

Yue Minjun, “Untitled,” oil on canvas, 1994 (private collection; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: And how many works are in the exhibition?

YM: More than forty — forty-seven? — I forget (laughs).

IW: You don’t often have such large-scale exhibitions. From your point of view, what is the effect of seeing all these works together — this “image” of your practice? Does this throw up new impressions for you, or provoke thinking about what you are currently working on, for example?

YM: Many of the works I haven’t seen for perhaps 10 or 20 years, so when I see them together for the first time in the exhibition, there are a lot of feelings. I never felt I was an artist who is focused on technique, but I perceive a kind of honesty and simplicity when I see these works again. My feeling is different from before; I can judge the work more objectively. And for the future, these feelings focus my interest in painting on canvas. I still feel that this is the most appropriate medium for addressing the essential problems of art and of expression.

Yue Minjun, “The Execution,” oil on canvas, 1995 (private collection; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.30

IW: We are beginning to see solo retrospective exhibitions in China now. Are you keen to have one of your own? What would that mean to you personally?

YM: I haven’t been preparing for this. Some artists began preparing years ago for their own retrospective, gathering works. But for me it’s difficult because I don’t have the work. I felt early on that if the works have their own value for history, they will be shown — that is, if people perceive value in them, they will show them in their own way. So for its own sake it is not important to have a retrospective; it is really down to the judgement of others. If they feel the work is worth showing, they will show it. As such, a retrospective of my work could happen if I was invited to do so, not “on purpose,” as it were.

Yue Minjun, “Sky,” oil on canvas, 1997 (private collection, Europe; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: You are internationally recognized as the originator of one of the most famous images of the late-20th Century. On reflection and in hindsight, how would you describe your original ambition as an artist?

YM: At first, I was not clear what kind of image I wanted to create, but through working, I discovered what had value for me, and then I found completion.

IW: So you mean you have attained what you had aimed for, as an artist — the peak of your development?

YM: But there is no end. It’s a difficult question.

IW: What is the shape of your ambition now?

Yue Minjun, “Untitled,” oil on canvas, 1998 (private collection; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

YM: It is not finished; there is still work to be done.

IW: Your works also imply the role of the artist in relation to the society of which he is a part, its sensations and issues. How do you see yourself in this light? Is your work the product of a certain distance, or of an intensely subjective view?

YM: I think that looking from a distance is more appropriate to describe my position, and that it is related to my character. I feel myself to be more of an observer.

IW: There is a very clear thematic path throughout your oeuvre — a steady line and a consistent, recurring image. Do you think that if you were to begin as an artist now, it would be the same?

YM: I really don’t know! Maybe, as part of the development of society, art has developed a lot. For artists, there are different requirements and status. At the time when I started working, artists needed more power; they felt very small in society at that time, and that they needed to express their power by the force of repetition and with a definitive image in order to be stronger and get noticed. Now, it is hard to say, and I am not a young artist.

Yue Minjun, “Water,” oil on canvas, 1998 (private collection, London; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: Are you much in touch with young artists now?

YM: Quite seldom. It is a form of self-protection, also, to avoid too much contact with other artists which might affect your work. For some artists, communication and discussion is what is needed; but if you are working on a single idea, it is necessary to think deeply and bring it to full realization.

IW: What is your attitude to the audience? When you are working, are you conscious of their reactions? Is this part of your process?

YM: When you create an art work, you cannot consider the audience too much; it isn’t like film, where you must communicate. The preciousness of painting is that everyone can have a dream. When you create a painting, the audience sometimes appears, and sometimes disappears. But when you present the work in an exhibition, the reaction of the audience may give you new inspiration.

Yue Minjun, “The Death of Marat,” oil on canvas, 2002 (private collection, Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: Do you have any examples of this from the Cartier exhibition?

YM: After seeing the exhibition, someone said to me that they felt there was a kind of absence in my paintings. For example, the Landscape without People series — when I painted this series, I didn’t think about that.

IW: It has occurred to me that your work is about presence and absence, simultaneously.

YM: This absence is perhaps related to my pessimism. These reactions by others allow me to rethink myself and my character.

IW: I was just looking at the sculpture over there. When you are around these works, even having created them yourself, are you conscious of a feeling they impart to you, or are they simply there as products?

YM: I don’t feel “close” to them. I am not like some artists, who look upon their work and feel it’s good. I have a strange feeling when I finish a painting, I am not ‘involved’ in it — there is still that degree of distance, and I feel like an observer.

Yue Minjun, “Mao Xinglan,” acrylic on canvas, 2007 (collection Faurschou Foundation, Copenhagen and Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: Each time you paint another of these visages, what is your sensation? It is purely practical, these days, marking out that same expression? Has the force of repetition had an effect on you, over time?

YM: Now, still, I am very excited when I paint this image. Sometimes I ask myself whether it’s because I am still not very good at it — sometimes it troubles me, I don’t know why. Maybe from another point of view it’s just that I am still ambitious and slightly nervous. It is not an easy habit, at any rate.

IW: Does a growing multitude of smiling faces — augmenting with every new piece —simply reflect the original conception of the idea and the feeling they convey?

YM:  Maybe the repetition reflects a kind of honest attitude. It might be not unlike religion, wherein icons are repeated over and over again. The more there are, the more affirmative it could be, and a clearer reflection of an original ambition — becoming engrained.

IW: Is that why religious iconography is interesting for you? Your last exhibition at Pace Beijing was entirely based on Christian imagery.

YM: I think it is related, but in an unconscious way. I am still thinking about creating some works relating to Buddhism, but this isn’t ready yet.

IW: Your smiling faces make a statement — albeit one difficult to clearly define — about  how people behave and are feeling in relation to their socio-political environment, and whether they fully understand it or not. Do you feel this expression is still apt now? Has there been any change?

YM: I cannot give up this expression because it is still unfolding, and I need to complete it by repeating the image. Maybe there has been some slight change in society, but relative to the broader picture of history, this change is very small.

Installation view with “Liberty Leading the People,” oil on canvas, 1995 (collection of the artist, Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: So the faces you depict and the expression you have chosen is not necessarily bound to the situation here, but is symptomatic of questions for humanity in general?

YM: Yes. It is limiting to approach these problems only in the context of contemporary China.

IW: Have you heard much feedback about the Cartier exhibition?

YM: The exhibition is more about the smiling face. There are some works there from the Maze and Landscape without People series, but when you put these alongside the smiling faces, people cannot switch easily between them. It is like watching three films in a row: it’s difficult to focus quickly on each in turn. But I know they have had an above-average number of visitors to the exhibition so far.

Yue Minjun, “Bystander,” oil on canvas, 2011 (collection of the artist, Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: And what about the media reports? Do these usually concern you?

YM: I think that to really understand the work of an artist sometimes takes a long time, so often the media responses represent more of an introduction, without deep readings.

IW: What are you looking forward to (or not) in the future, and what is next for you? (I gesture towards the recent painting behind where we sit, in which a grey skull grins out from an acid yellow background)

YM: Maybe now I have an increased feeling about death, so I have done several paintings with this skull image. Perhaps it’s because a lot of people say to me that I have painted so many of these smiling faces. It has made me think about the core of life and death. The title of this painting behind us is “A Great Laugh, A Glorious Death” — based on a famous phrase, “A Great Life, A Glorious Death,” by Chairman Mao.

IW: So you are thinking now about the death of this smiling face image?

YM: Yes. It’s another attitude to thinking about life.

Yue Minjun, “I am Dragon-3,” oil on canvas, 2008 (collection of the artist, Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.07
Yue Minjun, “Isolated Island,” oil on canvas, 2010 (collection of the artist, Beijing; © Yue Minjun). “L’Ombre du fou rire,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Nov. 14, 2012 – Mar 17, 2013.

IW: So what are you looking forward to?

YM: To creating more work and continuing this exploration.

IW: Are you happy? (I am sure people often ask you this).

YM: It’s a popular question, but it’s one that’s absent from the religious world in which we live. Life is not happy, so society develops via this kind of painful feeling, via struggle, and thus religious sentiment and belief arises.

IW: So, finally, would you say that your work has arisen in relation to this reality?

YM: Yes.

Interview conducted at Yue Minjun’s Beijing studio, December 10th, 2012.

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