Yue Min Jun

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boredom, conflict, emptiness, gender, language, laughter, violence
Visual Arts (painting, portrait, printmaking, wall picture)
Asia, Eastern
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July 23, 2003
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The Wisdom of Fools

Yue Min Jun is one of the most influential artists of the school of Cynical Realism in China. Using his own image repeatedly in paintings and sculptures, he transforms himself into an icon in order to make visible the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world. A huge, mocking grin is the trademark of his humorous yet unsettling works. His poster style paintings comment upon the role of the visual image in propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution in China, while his contorted figures suggest the awkward status of the Chinese language in contemporary society. War and conflict, the manipulation of history and art history and the ambiguity of gender are constant themes in his works.
´By employing traditional painting and sculpture techniques, multiple clones of my self-portrait image have been created in order to invent a new idol, in a similar approach to that of the television and movies. When an image is duplicated continuously, the subsequent strength in numbers produces an immense force. Once the image transforms into an idol, I am able to manipulate and utilise the image repeatedly. An idol has a life force; it often influences our lives and regulates our conduct by setting itself as an example. A contemporary society is an idolised society; hence its culture becomes an idolised culture.´

Yue Min Jun is one of the most influential artists of the school of Cynical Realism in China that includes Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, Song Yonghong and Liu Xiaodong. In his work, he makes visible the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world, through the repeated use of his own iconic image. Painting or making sculptures of himself bearing a huge, mocking grin and posing in awkward yet comical stances, his works are humorous and disturbing by turn.

The cumulative effect of countless mindless, silly laughing men populating his oeuvre is quite alarming. When laughter only makes sporadic appearances in life, permanent presence transforms it into something altogether more eerie. Yet Yue maintains a delicate balance. For it is also apt that art critic and curator Pi Li places him in line with a long tradition of artists throughout history who have dealt with the figure of ´the fool´. Present in the paintings of the Flemish School for example, idiots and madmen have enabled artists such as Bosch and Bruegel to satirise the ignorance and stupidity of the powerful in the societies in which they lived. Where derision might once have been directed at church and disdain at the control religion had over the people, Yue Min Jun now levels his attack at Mao Zedong and the Chinese state ideology during the Cultural Revolution and the society around him today.

Using a minimal palette to create simple compositions, Yue´s bold, colourful works have an immediate visual impact. ´My preference for vibrant colours of folk culture makes my creations more universal, more attractive and hence more accepted by the public´, the artist says. ´I merely want to articulate a complex issue in a simple but appealing manner.´

Indeed, characteristic of Yue Min Jun´s works is the visual power produced by a strong yet simplistic symbolism. Though reminiscent of Pop Art, Yue´s works in fact mimic and comment upon the use of propaganda posters produced during China´s Cultural Revolution. Examining the state of mind brought about by the influence of a singular culture and ideology, the simplicity of his works at once seduces and contrives an atmosphere of hollowness and superficiality.

Many of these paintings also comment on the status of the Chinese language, which is often perceived as a pillar of Chinese culture in general. The strange contorted stances of the figures in his paintings mimic written Chinese characters in a satire of the awkward state of Chinese pictograph today.

Yue probes visual history further in his re-compositions of famous masterpieces. Taking iconic works from both Chinese and western culture, he throws them into discordance either by substituting the figures in a painting with images of himself or of others or by eliminating human presence altogether.

He explains, ´At first I thought an artist always added things to a canvas but didn´t remove anything´ but, if a part of a picture that is familiar to everyone is changed, it produces a special feeling ´you establish a contrast. And force viewers to think about the figures´. Works subjected to this depeopling include Lin Biao´s ´Capturing Luding Bridge´, Dong Xiwen´s ´Founding Ceremony of China´, Delacroix´s ´Liberty Leading the People´, Monet´s ´Dejeuner sur l´Herbe´ and Vermeer´s ´The Lacemaker´.

Most unsettling however, are perhaps Yue´s paintings of gleeful men engaging in shooting and killing sprees. He explains, ´There is no end to killing in the human race - aliens from outer space probably regard us as the Earth´s laughing stock. My compositions are full of mock shooting and killing, carried out in full laughter. This is a form of ridicule at those who try to solve conflicts through violent means.´

The seeds of his cynicism can be traced back to his boyhood. Growing up in a compound of families who all belonged to the same work unit, Yue Min Jun had very little contact with the outside world. When he began to go to school, he found the atmosphere at home was claustrophobic rather than intimate, and riddled with internal antagonism. He explains, ´The work unit was small and somewhat isolated but there were still many people "plotting" against each other - the relationships between the directors themselves, between the directors and the workers, and even between the workers were delicate and highly complicated. It occurred to me that relations between people were far different from what I had experienced at school, and it infused me with scepticism.´

Like for many worldwide, the events of 4 June 1989 at Tiananmen Square were also to have a profound effect on Yue. ´It knocked me for six and saw me lose my idealism´, he says. ´Even though the ideals I held were not very strong, I still felt I had been cheated. I became dissatisfied with society´. During this time, many artists began creating works that were imbued with a sense of loss. Although Yue was to find much inspiration among his contemporaries, his works were to remain fiercely personal. ´I began to work on images of people that simultaneously aroused feelings of strength and self-mockery, which fit with my mood then and helped to relieve the unhappiness in my heart,´ he explains.

The spiritual essence of the fool originates from the philosophy of Lao Zhuang. ´Scholars of historical times often displayed a sense of helplessness when faced with society´s problems; most chose to give up´. Yue says. ´I feel that the act of giving up is a state of humanity; it prevents one from conflicting with society yet maintaining inner peace. To be able to give all up allows one to be nonchalant and detached. All problems can be solved with laughter - they simply disappear without causing any heartache. This is how one may attain extraordinary peacefulness within one´s inner self.´

Yue is quick to admit that the carefree, or careless attitude of his foolish characters who effuse a sense of idleness, laziness, boredom and indifference reflects his own character and even contributed to his artistic calling. ´After graduation from college I got a job teaching drawing for North China Petroleum but I left to move to Yuanmingyuan´, Yue says. ´My parents urged me to return to work, but I loved drawing and had totally lost interest in teaching - I don´t live as my family or society expects of me´.

This nonchalance extends to his practice: ´I never study carefully the composition of my picture - whether it is wider on this side or whether the other side lacks something´, he says. ´I don´t care about the proportion at all. I don´t even produce preliminary sketches. Once I make a decision I never make any changes to the painting. That´s just my personality.´

During the early stages of his practice, Yue followed Soviet methods of observing life, using the chiaroscuro that they in turn had adopted from Renaissance painting. According to Yue however, he eventually even discarded this technique out of laziness. ´I hate putting in more strokes after having sketched out the composition. It´s boring. I prefer simplicity´, he declares, adding, ´A sea of strokes makes me uncomfortable´.

Instead, Yue Min Jun began producing silk-screen prints. A visit to the Venice Biennale in 1999 impressed upon him the power of repetition in generating visual force. ´A single work never achieves such power´, he says, ´Media, information and other aspects of mass culture thrive on constant repetition.´ By embracing the techniques of contemporary global culture, Yue eliminates traditional aesthetic conceptions of grace, poetry and the sublime. In fact, for art critic and curator Pi Li, this is perhaps what sets him apart from the rest. ´The biggest difference between other contemporary artists and Yue Min Jun,´ he writes, ´is that while other artists make boring moments "sublime" and "poetic" he resolutely employs a mode of degradation and adulteration of the concepts of "sublime" and "poetic".

Sources include: artist statements and ´As Mad As You´ by Pi Li; ´Creation of a Superficial Idol´, a dialogue between Li Xianting and artist Yue Min Jun, 2002; ´To Desecrate Icons with Icons´ by Zhang Qing and translated by Teo Han Wue, Dawn, 28 September 2002.
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts


Born in 1962 in Daqing in the Heilongjiang province, China, Yue Min Jun moved with his family to Beijing when he was six years old. He first worked as an electrician for the Ocean Oil Company in Tianjin, but later trained as a painter. After graduating from Hebei Normal University, he found a job teaching drawing for North China Petroleum but decided instead to move to Yuanmingyuan, a small village near the old Summer Palace, which became an artists´ colony. He has had solo exhibitions in the UK, Germany and has exhibited in numerous group shows worldwide. In 1996, he designed the Redstar watch for The Artists Collection of Swatch Watches. He is currently based in Beijing.



Exhibition / Installation,
2003 ‘CP Open Biennale 2003’, Galeri Nasional Indonesia-Jakarta 2002 ‘Conceptual Images: 2002 Chinese Contemporary Oil Painting’, Shenzhen Art Museum, Shenzhen 2002 ‘The 1st Guangzhou Triennial: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art’, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou 2002 ‘Six Contemporary Chinese Artists’, Reykjavik Art Museum, Kjarvalstadir, Reykjavik 2001 ‘Chinese Mythology’, Yidian Gallery, Shanghai 2001 ‘New Works’, Courtyard Gallery, Beijing 2001 ‘C’est Moi, C’est Nous’, Galerie de France, Paris 2001 ‘Passe-Murailles’, Musée de Picardie, Amiens 2001 ‘Millennium Portrait of China’, Bremen City Gallery, Bremen 2001 ‘Hot Pot’, Kunstnemes Hus, Oslo 2001 ‘New Image: 20 Years of Chinese Contemporary Painting’, touring major Chinese art museums 2001 ‘Take Part’, Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne 2001 ‘Group Exhibition’, Art Beatus Gallery, Vancouver, Canada 2000 Shanghai Art Fair 2000 2000 ‘Futuro’, Contemporary Art Centre of Macau 2000 ‘Our Chinese Friends’, Gallery Urs Meile, Weimar, Germany 2000 ‘Portraits de Chine Contemporaine’, Espace Culturel Francois Mitterand, Perigueux, France 1999-–2001 ‘Transparence-Opacité?’, ACAVA, Aosta, Aix-en-Provence, La Villette, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona 1999 ‘d’APERTutto, 48th Venice Biennale, Venice 1998 ‘5000 + 10’, Chinese Contemporary (London), Bilbao, Spain 1998 ‘The Grand Tour’, Chinese Contemporary, London 1998/7 ‘8+8-1, Selected Paintings by Fifteen Contemporary Artists’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1997/6 ‘CHINA!’, Kunstmuseum, Bonn, travelled to Vienna, Berlin, Singapore, Copenhagen and Warsaw 1996 ‘Elevenses – The Avant Garde’, Taikoo Palace, Hong Kong 1996 ‘Inaugural Exhibition II’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1995 ‘Images of Women II’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1995 ‘New Trends ‘95’, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hong Kong 1995 ‘The History of Chinese Oil Painting: From Realism to Post-modernism’, Galerie Theoremes, Brussels 1995 ‘5+5: Voices from Russia and China’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1995 ‘Visions of China: Contemporary Chinese Painting’ by Chinese Masters, Pacific City Club, Bangkok 1995 ‘The Magnificent Duo: Recent Works by Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1995 ‘The Beijing 3: A Three Man Show by Zhang Gong, Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1994 ‘8+8, Contemporary Russian and Chinese Avant Garde Exhibition’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1994 ‘New Trends ‘94’ Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hong Kong 1994 ‘Faces Behind the Bamboo Curtain: Works by Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin’, Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong 1994 ‘Art Asia ‘94’, Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hong Kong 1992 ‘Yuanmingyuan Artists Exhibition’, Yuanmingyuan, Beijing


Exhibition / Installation,
2003 Prüss & Ochs Gallery, Berlin 2000 ´Red Ocean´, Chinese Contemporary, London 1997 Klaus Littmann Gallery, Basel

Ocean Brain

Exhibition / Installation,
Oil on canvas, 220x200cm


Exhibition / Installation,
Oil on canvas, 200x210cm

Garbage Heap

Exhibition / Installation,
Acrylic on canvas, 200x280cm

Mushroom Cloud

Exhibition / Installation,
Acrylic on canvas, 300x220cm


Exhibition / Installation,
Silkscreen print, 120x80cm

Contemporary Terracotta Warriors

Exhibition / Installation,
Fibreglass reinforced plastic, H:185cm xW:65cm, 25pcs

Noah´s Ark

Exhibition / Installation,
Silkscreen print, 59x83cm


Long March Foundation

Yue Min Jun´s participation in a project organised by the Long March Foundation, New York and The 25000 Cultural Transmission Center, Beijing with the aim of taking contemporary Chinese and international art to a sector of the Chinese public that is rarely exposed to such work

Galerie Meile

Article, images, biography in English

Courtyard Gallery

Images and biography in English

Chinese Contemporary

Article, images, biography in English


Biography, text, images and link to bibliography in

Irish Eyes

´Ornament and Abstraction´, article on Yue Min Jun by Ann Cremi
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