Yue Minjun’s Cheshire Grin

Part I – A Thousand Smiles

Now for a few necessary words about a smile, specifically a man’s smile…the smile of the scholars who had accepted Diotima’s invitation and were listening to the famous artists. Although they were smiling, they were absolutely not to be suspected of doing so ironically. (The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil)

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he was “As happy a man as any in the world, for the whole world seems to smile upon me!” Perhaps this is the source of the more banal “smile and the whole world smiles with you.” Whereas the first acknowledges a comforting delusion–indicated by the use of the word ‘seems,’ the latter is more egotistically feel-good and thereby suckered by its own delusion. Pepys is ecstatic but he knows what that means. You see, he asks of us: what are you smiling at? And more importantly, what are they smiling at? What matters though is whether you get the joke.

There are many different smiles, not least of all in art. There is the tragicomic smile of the clown, the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa or Picasso’s slashes, Tom Wesselmann’s porn-smile and Warhol’s gloss-smile. And you can think about these smiles endlessly because it’s never entirely clear what they mean, on whom the joke falls, who laughs last and who is hedging their bets smiling on the other side of their face. A smile is a pleasure but also a defense, stimulating and dissimulating.

In 1528, a year prior to his death in Spain where he was ambassador for the Pope, Baldassare Castiglione’s famous humanist book of instruction, “The Courtier,” was published. In it he developed the notion of sprezzatura or “studied nonchalance,” the air or grace that Castiglione believed a good courtier needed to maintain in order to serve his master–including the knowing smile. By this time he was the Pope’s ambassador to the Court of Spain and the Duke of Urbino had made him a count. Evidently his sprezzatura smile served him better than tongue-in-cheek irony did Machiavelli, who was forced into retirement by an unappreciative Lorenzo Medici, to whom Machiavelli’s infamous The Prince had been dedicated. Smiles can be tricky. It is their very uncertainty, however, that makes smiles such an attractive foil for art.

In his various writings on the European novel, Milan Kundera has stressed the importance of uncertainty. Uncertainty is not moral equivalence. The rhetorical power of ambiguity in a novel is consistently more affecting than didacticism. In his novels one could even speak of the presence of a narrator’s smile, wry, tragic, resigned but also subversive and funny. His first novel, The Joke, looks at how a trivial joke has unintended consequences, escaping the intentions of the joker and coming back to haunt him. As the joke is repeated, it loses its light charm and becomes something tyrannical, a golem (see) only in The Joke there is no magical Rabbi to make it go away.

This almost brings us to the smiling men of Yue Minjun. Remember first, though, that post-modernism is not simply what followed modernism but is defined by it. For Postmodernism, Modernism is an unreachable utopia. We might say Postmodernists are all romantics but not in the sense of wistful nostalgia, not a saccharine hankering after the good old days. Romanticism longs for an idolized beloved who was perhaps never possessed. Only a lover could make bitter jokes on the one hand and superficial ones on the other. Only a lover could combine respect and distaste, tenderness and ridicule. Now look at Yue Minjun’s smile, one which has become famous the world over. Again and again we see his lurid pink face with its huge, gaping smile – eyes squeezed shut, cheeks taut, lips, teeth, tongue, epiglottis! – a Loony Tunes smile. Not sexualized like Tom Wesselmann’s, not psychotic like Takashi Murakami’s but also not vacant like Warhol’s.

Again and again we see it, one painting after another, including many imitations of famous Western masterpieces, such as Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Execution of Maximilian.” It is particularly striking because the smile is worn not only by each of the executioners, officers and soldiers, but also by the victims. But this is not explained. It could just as easily be referring to the tension between Chinese tradition and ‘Western’ modernism as the political conflicts.

The more you look at these paintings and their smiles, the less certain they are. The laughter becomes a grimace, a rictus of pain, of embarrassment, of sheer effort, of insanity. But they also remind us of other smiles, such as the slowly shaking heads of sideshow clowns and the insincere smiles of shop assistants, showgirls, prostitutes and advertising – the fake smiles that can be bought and put on. The smile is one of the simplest of human gestures but it gives nothing away. The smile that does not go away is embarrassing, disquieting, eventually distasteful and offensive. It does not represent eternal bliss but permanent compulsion. The smile is tyrannical.

Smiles can be manufactured in quantity and many people can smile many smiles. A smile can be fixed, aped, affected, though Yue’s paintings question whether mere smiles can manufacture genuine happiness. But with a different preposition, the whole world would smile at you. As you can see, the problem with smiles is that they can run away, escaping your grasp.

Arnheim had subtly pried it out of Diotima and now could not help smiling when he thought of it. Was it a wistful smile or a malicious one? (Musil, p. 589)

Part I – Collective Memory

Meanwhile, a Chinese and Western group exhibition at OV Gallery avoids aping Western artistic mores, instead acknowledging that history and memory are unstable mediums with shifting values.

Yue Minjun’s art has relied heavily upon a conceit of ambiguity: do his self-portraits smile or grimace? Again and again his super-plastic face appeared in re-workings of propaganda photos, posters, and Western painting, most notably in “Massacre of Chios,” 1994 (Delacroix, 1824), “Princess,” 1997 (detail of Velázquez’ “Las Meninas,” 1656), “Execution,” 1995 (Goya, “The Third of May,” 1808), and “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” 1995 (Manet, 1863). The conceit was successful, slick, digestible, and cool, until it embraced its own parody with giant colourful automotive enamel dinosaurs (“Colorful Running Dinosaurs, 2008”) marching through the Shanghai Art Museum during the 2008 Biennale. The dinos were fun but the parade could go no further; and anyway, the financial bubble had just burst.

Before considering what Yue did next, we should reflect on why he became famous. It is trite to dismiss him as a Chinese contemporary artist who was picked up in China’s recent rise in the world art market – like a bird caught in a thermal that swirls up into the atmosphere until the cold and oxygen deprivation return it earthward. Such cynical jabs are almost as superficial as the unvarnished love for his paintings expressed by certain art world Barnums. The truth however is that, at his best, Yue produced works of extraordinary force and subtlety. Take for example “Princess” (1997), which was exhibited in “Thirty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art” at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai this year. Velázquez’ Infanta has grown infantile. She is quite simply huge. She crowds the pictorial plane to the exclusion of everything else. The opulent room, the umpteen courtiers, and the painter himself, Velazquez, and also the King and Queen, reflected in the mirror above her head, have all vanished. And the princess, so delicate, so anonymous really, dressed in fine silks and taffeta, has been replaced by steel fabric, making her literally impregnable.

Since then however, it appears Yue has been hoist with his own petard – appropriate really given the hot air involved. Umpteen leering self-portraits have continued to roll out with only two real exceptions, one unsuccessful, one pointing to an interesting potential future. First came, “Landscapes With No One,” from 2006 and this year the subject of the exhaustively titled exhibition, “The Spirit Scenes from Time Past – Yue Minjun Solo Exhibition of Paintings Series: ‘Landscapes with No One,’” at Shanghai Gallery of Art. These involve realistic tableaux paintings of famous propaganda scenes and Western works, only absent the protagonists – the subject of a recent show at Shanghai Gallery of Art. Inspired by the famous girl-on-girl portrait “Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters,” 1594, depicting the former tweaking the nipple of the latter, Yue’s version shows just an empty room with a gaping bath downstage. Another example is Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers in their Apartment,” 1834. In Yue’s version (2006) the remains are a hookah pipe and lavish soft furnishings straight from Homes & Gardens, only not as sumptuous as Delacroix’s. This is a general problem. Not only is the scale higgledy-piggledy, with some paintings much larger than their model, some less, none of identical size, but the actual painting technique is relatively slapdash. And in this context the quality is important, because it means the conceit fails to convince, let alone seduce, thus depriving it of its all-important disguise. The re-workings of propaganda paintings suffer similarly although their content sometimes manages to deliver something more substantive. So in “I Graze Horses for My Motherland” (2006) the horses are freed of their riders, and, absent its brave soldiers. “Eulogy of the Yellow River” (2006) becomes a picture about cranes sweeping over the river. Meanwhile, “Take the Luding Bridge by Storm” (2006) and “Seizing the Presidential Palace” (2006) are no longer heroic and inspiring but tragic and mournful. But “Tian An Men Remains,” free of Mao, dignitaries and euphoric crowds, remains grandiose rather than poignant. Meanwhile, “Chairman Mao Visits Canton Countryside” looks like a student wanting to do a really, really big Van Gogh, but muffing it.

This is more or less the same territory as the photography of German artist Thomas Demand, where mass-culture images of psycho-trauma derived, for instance, from infamous events of Fascism, terrorism and extreme criminality, are repositioned as empty stages. Demand’s game however is considerably subtler. Whereas Yue relies on a new conceit, Demand’s art is in the methodology, the absent friends merely a foil for investigating the semiotic and evidential nature of public images versus personal memory. The question is whether there is a particular ‘Chinese’ context that nevertheless justifies Yue’s relatively simplistic gambit. Unlikely. The scale of a ‘trauma’ should not justify a reductive approach. Arguably the more complicated the history, and the more talented or prominent the artist, then the higher the standard of intellectual rigor and care that is required to critically address historical events. In this case, the method itself is ham-fisted. Yue Minjun simply does not match Demand’s care. Demand first constructs a scene in paper; such as the studio of an artist who was targeted by Baader-Meinhof terrorists in order to assassinate the neighbouring state prosecutor (“Attempt”, 2005) or the rumoured assassination of a German politician (“Badezimmer (Beau Rivage)”, 1997). This is then photographed, apparently recreating precisely the ‘original,’ but the copy is disturbingly clean and lacking in detail. Finally, the paper model is destroyed – the photographic evidence becomes a simulacrum and what we think we see is only what we expect to.

Even on the basis of some exclusive if uncertain ‘China’ context, there are better methods that could be employed. Zhang Dali “Second History” 2010 almost avoids artifice altogether, leaving the absence of people and obsessive remodelling of detail to speak for itself. The project involved a five year effort of canvassing China’s archives in search of different versions of historical photographs to compare them against those the artist found in magazines such as People’s Pictorial. Thus the newsprint version of “Mao and Stalin,” 2009, evidences simple cropping and editing of people and the newsprint’s own loss of ‘image quality’. “February 19th, 1953 Chairman Mao on a Navy Warship,” 2005 is presented as a documentary display including a stamp of ‘authenticity’ and evidencing of absurd aesthetic value judgments; for instance, one young sailor receives cosmetic dentistry. Interestingly, the originals are always smaller scaled and black and white, and the finessed images are in colour, albeit somewhat faded, thus emphasising their artificial, ‘produced’ quality. In “The First Sports Meeting of the National Army, 1952,” 2009, no sport is to be seen. Instead two black ellipses (umbrellas) are removed to make way for the Communist Party emblem. How mundane these images are, how banal the editing: that is what is most disturbing. Conversely, Yue Minjun continues to rely on his Cheshire grin, even when you can’t see it.

The second exception to Yue’s cavalcade of oil self-portraits is sculpture, which, like the dinosaurs, has provided respite from painting. These succeed as commentary, as puzzle, as critique in ways that the “Landscapes With No One” series could only hope for; indeed, it is difficult to understand how the same artist could have produced both series of works. One can only speculate that the wrench of reinventing himself from the “laughing artist” has been painful. In “Archaeological Discovery in A.D.3009” (2009), five bronze smiling Yue-figures stand on a low wooden platform, a clearing of two-meter high wooden poles with old-fashioned lamps scattered above (145 x 100 x 75 cm). One eats, one reads, one points and laughs. Surrounding this are three bronze tent-like structures, absent of people but not their remnants, such as a doll and cooking utensils. It presents itself as a museum display or a parody of such. The perverse irony – that in the year 3009, bronze Yue Minjun sculptures aping a primitive civilization will be all that remains of our contemporary civilization for archaeologists to interpret – is delicious but also redundant. For these are not fake cultural artefacts but fake Yue Minjun artefacts in search of conceptualist meaning. The figures could almost be prisoners trapped in Yue’s imagination, wherein the smile that was a strategy through repetition has become unintentionally bathetic. In this there are the fragile seeds of an alternative practice, one where Yue becomes his own principal critic.

The Spirit Scenes from Time Past. Yue Minjun Solo Exhibition of Paintings Series “Landscapes with No One” at Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai, April 19-May 23, 2010

Acknowledgments to Associate Professor Dr Rex Butler, University of Queensland, Australia and his book An Uncertain Smile, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Woolloomooloo, 1996.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, 1995, Alfred A. Knopf: London, p.325 (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Neu-Edition, ed. Prof. Adolf Frisé, 1978, Rowohlt Berlag GmbH: Reinbeck bet Hamburg).

Note: Parts of this essay appeared in April 2008 on mooreandmooreart.co.uk under the title of “Yue Minjun’s Smile.”

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