by Michelle Vosper
Beijing painter Yue Minjun, one of the top- selling contemporary artists in the commercial market, whose works have sold for as much as USD 6.9 million, is the most instantly-recognized Chinese painter today. His images of laughing men --- all likenesses of himself --- cracking up uncontrollably in diverse sombre backgrounds, can be seen all over the world. Italians call it the “Berlusconi Smile.”
From May 25-29th, Yue Minjun will play the joke on himself and on the commercial system that has transformed him from a struggling painter in the 1990's to one of China’s wealthiest celebrities. His sprawling yet spartan home in Songzhuang district could house a small army.
Yue has donated a new self-portrait to the Asian Cultural Council in support of an installation project which Hong Kong artist Amy Cheung will present at ART HK 11: Hong Kong International Art Fair that opens on May 25th. Cheung's interactive sculpture, "Chance Machine" seeks to level the playing field in art collecting by making it possible for people of all walks of life to win and own works of art, regardless of their economic means. Her educational game will entice participants to purchase chances while reflecting on the topic: "what is the difference between value and price?"
Yue Minjun's work entitled "Tu Nian Ji Xiang” (Good Luck in the Year of the Rabbit) will be the jackpot prize. A lucky chance-taker could win the work for as little as HKD 20.
Amy Cheung is a recipient of a 2010 fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, a non-profit organization which supports outstanding visual and performing artists for educational and creative programs in the United States. Cheung is one of Hong Kong's most internationally known artists whose work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007 when she also received the "Outstanding Young Artist Award" from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Her sculptural installation will be featured in the Asian Cultural Council's booth at ART HK 11 and will also present art works which she has created in collaboration with twelve arts professionals who have visited the U.S. on educational programs of the Asian Cultural Council.
“I wanted to align my project with a financially valuable superstar” explained Amy Cheung. “Yue Minjun was very gracious to accept my proposition to challenge the “price tag” establishment within an art fair context. Art has a humble and compassionate origin that is affordable for all. Is it possible for everyone to laugh at the speculative art market and soberly reflect upon what constitutes “value” in art, life and contemporary society?”
Born in Heilongjiang in 1962 to a family of laborers in the Daqing oil fields, Yue Minjun began painting scenes of the sea and portraits of colleagues when working on an offshore drilling boat. He later studied art formally at Hebei Normal University and graduated in 1989. His laughing portraits were inspired by the painter Geng Jianyi and have come to be associated with the Cynical Realism movement of the 1990's.
While Yue's faces clearly mirror his own features, in real life Yue Minjun does not come across as the class clown or life of the party. He is polite, reserved and borderline shy. Last year he made his film debut in "Color Me Love" starring Joan Chen and Liu Ye which presented his paintings as part of the visual design. According to film director Alexi Tan, Yue’s cameo appearance required an endless number of takes before he could successfully capture the camera-shy artist.
So what is Yue Minjun laughing about anyway?
In traditional Chinese society, laughing in public was generally frowned upon and even today many women cover their mouths when allowing the tiniest Mona Lisa smile. And while no one in the world likes "being laughed at", in face-conscious Asian societies, anxiety about what others think is particularly poignant. In China, laughing is no laughing matter.
China's younger ‘‘after the 80's " generation who have been exposed to the world through the internet and film, are laughing out loud more than their parents. But this behavior is considered to be ''western'' by more conservative critics.
According to Michel Clasquin in his 2001 publication on the history of laughter, “Real Buddhas Don't Laugh", the jury is still out on the source of what might seem like a simple expression of mirth. Plato considered laughter to be a kind of "playful aggression" which revealed feelings of superiority over other people. Freud's "relief theory" described it as a socially acceptable outlet for an excessive amount of nervous pressure. No one seems to connect the behavior with joy or happiness.
So what about the Chinese Laughing Buddha of tourist shops? Clasquin writes that he is based on Pu-Tai, a wandering priest of the Tang Dynasty. Buddhism came to China from India where the original scriptures condemned boisterous laughter as one of the 220 rules for all monks. But the Zen Buddhists of China made some adjustments and turned humour into a tool for attaining enlightenment. Laughing at oneself was seen as particularly effective.
Has Yue Minjun reached this stage of enlightenment? Is he really laughing at himself? As always, the artist remains elusive about his intent.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde has the last laugh once again: "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise, they'll kill you." ('The Nightingale and the Rose')
CHANCE MACHINE will be presented in the Asian Cultural Council booth in Hall 3 Booth X9 at ART HK 11 in the Hong Kong Convention Center from May 26-29, 2011.
Michelle Vosper is the Hong Kong Director of the Asian Cultural Council which has supported more than 6,000 arts professionals and institutions for programs of cultural exchange since its establishment in New York in 1963.