Yue Minjun – Obsession or self-obsession?

The Sun, 2000. An Acrylic work on canvas. Photo: nytimes
The Sun, 2000. An Acrylic work on canvas. Photo: nytimes

Yue Minjun has a funny way of expressing himself. Best known as a self-portrait artist, taken to posing in various settings but with only one face, a grimace. Is this Cynical Realism or just cynical?

Born in Beijing in 1962 in Daqing, Heilongjiang, China to a nomadic family of deep-sea oil workers, Minju says his whole life has been greatly influenced by his upbringing; the constant moving from town to town looking for work. Then his own brief experience working on the oil fields in the Pacific Ocean and the Yellow Sea sets the tone.

A Nod to Surrealism 

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s easy to see why Minjun is influenced by Surrealism, or it would be if Minjun grew up in the west. But growing up in communist China at a time of austerity, strict communist values, and a dislike of the west, without the internet to see what others were doing, it’s hard to know how he reached this point. This fact only helps to make the art even more interesting.

When asked why he paints his face a pinky red colour in all his paintings—his reply is vague—putting it down to life experiences. Certainly, you can see the colour reflecting back when looking for possible influences including the Terracotta Army or the fact he grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution policed by the red army. Whatever it is you get the impression that if Minjun knows he’s deliberately not saying.

Inspired by Geng Jianyi, a Chinese artist of the same age and genre—Jianyi also produced a smiling self-portrait. Minjun also references European classical. Imagine a mixture of a Delacroix painting The Massacre at Chios and the Jianyi laughing self-portrait and you have the basis of a style that will go on to be extraordinary.  

Goldfish, 1962. Oil on canvas. Photo: Sotheby’s

By the early ’90s, Minjun gave up traditional work to move away to an artist village in order to concentrate on his art. This would not have been an easy choice: a bohemian lifestyle was not encouraged. Today Minjun still has a relatively nomadic lifestyle, moving from exhibition to exhibition promoting his prolific work ethic, but the narrative remains narrow.

Cultural Issues

Yue Minjun says he wants to challenge social and cultural issues in China but in an abstract manner. So abstract that when asked about it, he says he will not use art to pinpoint his views. We can see in the famous painting called Execution—Minjun’s characters stand with exaggerated laughing faces in their underwear. It has been suggested that this is a nod towards the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But we don’t know that for sure, and Minjun is not saying.

In fact, Minjun denies that this painting, or any other piece of art or sculpture, is a criticism of the government or the state. Going on to stress that it’s not his job to make political statements, and will only comment on consumerism and consumption in the wider world. Putting himself forward as both antagonist and anti-hero. But is he really either of those things?

If it’s about consumerism why has this former electrician created an ongoing series of laughing faces, a logo or a brand image recognisable in every piece of work from the early 1990s onwards, marketable and instantly recognisable and therefore profitable? There lies the irony.

If Minjun won’t say then it’s up to you to be the critic. Either way, Minjun will just keep laughing all the way to the bank.

Ostriches, 1997. Oil on canvas. Photo: sfmoma


Exhibitions listed started in 1987. Graduating from Hebei Normal University, he further exhibited at a contemporary modern art exhibition at the Beijing Friendship Guest House in 1991 and from then on almost every year. Exhibiting in 1999 at the Venice Biennale in an exhibition called “Open Boundary”

2000 – 2005 “Red Ocean”—at the Saatchi Gallery, London, UK

It was 1999 that saw a transition from oil and canvas to bronze sculptures and back again in 2005 with this untitled but fondly named “Hat Collection”—at this point, Minjun is highly collectable.

Exhibitions In Between 

2000 – “Portraits Of Chinese Contemporaries” – The Culture Center of Francois Mitterrand in France  and 8 others

2001 – 16 exhibitions around the world including “Ornament and Abstraction” Foundation Beyler, Rienhen, Switzerland.

2002 – 12 exhibitions including the famous “Soaking in Silly Laughter” – One of Art, Singapore.

2002 – Soobin Art Gallery, Singapore 

2003 and 2004 – 18 exhibitions including “Dreaming of the Dragon’s Nation” – Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland

2005 – 11 exhibitions including “Beautiful Cynicism”, Arario Beijing, Beijing, China

2006 – 10 exhibitions “Manipulation Series”, Enrico Navarra Gallery, Paris, France 

2007 and 2008 – 18 exhibitions featuring the famous ‘Red Hot’ Asian Art from the Chaney Family Collection, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA

2009 through to 2011 – featuring 15 exhibitions including “Made in Pop Land”, National Museum of Contemporary Art Korea, Gwacheon, Korea

2012 – 2013 

L’Ombre du Sourire – Paris, France. Featuring 130 paintings and drawings collected from many individual collections; this exhibition was the largest exhibition in Europe to date.

The above listing has been taken from Yue Minjuns website and shortened for the benefit of this article.

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