To mark the opening of the first major exhibition in Europe dedicated to the Chinese artist Yue Minjun, i-D asked filmmaker Alexi Tan to find out what lies beneath Minjun’s freaky wide smile.
Click images to enlarge.
“The perception of my work is not that simple. It’s not purely about being happy”, explains Yue Minjun as he sits in his Beijing studio working on another grinning canvas. “There’s a lot of pain in life and I just try to express myself in a comedic way.” Known internationally for similarly large scale paintings that depict his own beaming face, the artist has long been a smiling shooting star of the Chinese contemporary art scene. Now, thanks to the Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain, Paris welcomes his first major European exhibition and offers a unique opportunity to discover the work of an artist who, in spite of his international renown, continues to maintain a relatively low profile. Featuring nearly forty paintings from collections around the world and a wide array of drawings that have never been shown to the general public, L’ombre du Fou Rire revels in the singular and complex aesthetic of an artist that defies all interpretation. Given that a smile and a wink was the founding graphic of i-D’s identity, we asked filmmaker Alexi Tan to find out what lies beneath Minjun’s go-lucky expression.
Tell us about ‘L’Ombre Du Fou Rire’… The exhibition has been planned and prepared for the last four or five years. The curator had a very strong idea about which works to display. The real task was collecting the works that were scattered in various places.
What periods does the exhibition cover? The time span of the work ranges from the 1990s to the present. It was not easy to find many of the originals. The searching took over a year, almost two years in fact. Many works could not be found. Nothing could be done if some collectors and museums didn’t want to lend the works.
How involved were you in the selection? I didn’t put forward a single opinion for the exhibition. In fact, in my past personal exhibitions, I had to decide on everything, such as works, space, position, layout and so on. This time, I just wanted to see how westerners view a Chinese artist, to see my work through the exhibition planner’s eyes and learn about how they appreciated and analysed my work. I just wanted to look at myself again from a third party’s point of view. Even the name of the exhibition was picked by them. Perhaps through the name they wanted to tell the audience that they should see what was behind the works, not only what was on the surface of the paintings.
Despite your international renown, you’ve managed to maintain a relatively low profile and this exhibition marks your first major solo event in Europe. Why Paris, why now? Before this moment I had not had the chance to hold a personal exhibition in a European country. Europe has its own set of systems and ideas. Also, it’s a very tiring job and I don’t like doing a tiring job, which makes me low-tone, I think. This time because they invited me, I just acted in response to their invitation. And it turned out pretty well, without any problems.
What are your favourites places in Paris? I like the classical buildings of various eras in Paris. Here in Beijing, if we want to see something ancient, we have to go to a specifically given place. While in Paris, you can see them everywhere. That is really a much better thing.
Theorist Li Xianting has described your works as ‘a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China’. How would you describe you work? Li Xianting was correct by saying so at that time but such a description also has a problem. It is easy to be superficial and it’s simple to confine an artist to the surface represented by a painting. So, I always want to make it clear that I have a mentality to create such works. When the creation gets deeper, you will find that actually it is not only a simple feeling of the cynical realism, not only hip hop stuff, but a kind of painful feeling that needs to be expressed in a comic way. As time goes by, you will gradually feel it.
You’ve been a leading figure in the wave of Chinese contemporary art that has flourished since the early 1990s, how has China changed during this time? Nobody except the Chinese can experience such entanglement of the contradiction and conflicts. As you know, this contradiction is the most complicated one in the human society because in China there are socialism factors, capitalism factors and also conventional Eastern culture. Not every country has such a background which is enough to drive people crazy. My works in the 1990s, at the beginning, gave people the feeling of helplessness. Some time later, people felt that there was not only helplessness, but there were other factors as well, which varied with the changes of times. When you look at my works, they will bring you various feelings.
How have these changes influenced your work? The changing times have had a great impact on my works and caused me to become more confused, troubled, worried and entangled. I feel that it is increasingly difficult to navigate mentally, because all the contradictions are presented, yet the suitable solution hasn’t been found.
How do you see your work developing in response? I’m not sure if my works will look more and more painful in expression. Maybe when you come to the right moment, you will let go. You will find that this not a personal problem, not China’s problem either, but it is a problem of the whole human race. You will realize: “oh, I can’t solve anything.” In terms of the issues in China, one’s feeling is just a feeling of contradiction and outburst. It feels like it could be a decisive moment. Together with hard struggle and exploration as well as strange joy or ecstasy, you might run into such an era.
What’s next for Yue Minjun? I’m preparing for my exhibition in Macao at the end of next year, the content of which is different from this one. It is an opportunity for me to exhibit all that I have experimented on these last few years. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. There is also economic crisis in Europe and there are many uncertain factors about future, to say nothing about individual. I, too, have different orientations in different works. Those diverse orientations tell the audience that an artist is not an unchangeable line and not a stable existence. Instead, an artist is very likely to be in a state which is chaotic, contradiction-interlaced, or wrong and ridiculous.
Yue Minjun, L’Ombre du fou rire is at Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain, Paris, until 17th March 2013.
Text: Steve Salter
Text Translation: Ujin Zhou
Film: Alexi Tan and PLAY Productions, Beijing
Photography: Anais Martane