Artwork: Yue Minjun
Words: Dong Yue Su
Photos: Courtesy of the Vancouver Biennale and Dan Fairchild Photography
A-maze-ing Laughter features the wide open-mouthed laughter, the signature trademark of Yue Minjun, who is one of the most prominent Chinese artists known to the world. The sculpture erected in Morton Park consists of fourteen bronze laughing figures. The caricature-like happy faces are the stylized self-portrait of the artist himself. The facial intensity, comic quality and oversized figures are intended to amaze you; while the arrangement of the figures, with identical expressions but distinct gestures, constitutes a maze-like structure that encourages exploration and fun. You are invited to walk through the figures and laugh out loud if you may.
Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. He belongs to the generation of artists whose creative impulses were first suppressed by the totalitarian political culture and then unleashed in the reform period of the 1980s. In the 1990s, Yue became known for his paintings of laughing figures and his involvement with the art movement known as Cynical Realism. This movement was an apparent reference to and subversion of the Social Realism that dominated the art scene at the peak of the Communist-Socialist mania and that largely reduced art to an ideological propaganda tool. Yue’s shrewd observation and unique paintings capture the symptoms of the Socialist culture of his time. The laughter is marked by eyes tightly shut, teeth bared, mouth out of proportion and wide open. The exaggeration is applied uniformly on all the figures depicted. Enigmatic and elusive as it seemed, the laughter was interpreted by many as an indication of state politics acting on everyday life, and therefore suggestive of a kind of mentality under tight social control.
The laughing figures have become one of the most recognizable representations of Chinese art. In recent years, the popularity of the laughing face has extended into popular culture. Commercial replicas of the laughing figures in different sizes and media have been made and have become must-haves for many to be in sync with contemporary China. The laughing figures have been growing in meaning over time. In the global context, the laughter has acquired a universal appeal since it has been showing and interacting with many different cultures. It is perceived as inviting playfulness and joy as well as provoking thoughts on social conditions. Yue often states that politics is rooted deeply in the cultural psyche and human nature, and therefore it is more meaningful for art to tackle the deeper roots that shape the politics. The maze is an important concept and recurrent theme in his latest works. For him, the structural interrelations of politics, religion and culture are like a maze, within which he as a player is trying to sort out the confusion. Another copy of A-maze-ing Laughter is installed in Today Museum in Beijing.
A-maze-ing Laughter was donated to the City of Vancouver in 2012 by the Chip and Shannon Wilson Foundation through the Vancouver Biennale. The work was curated for the Biennale by Shengtian Zheng.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Yue Minjun’s works have been exhibited and celebrated worldwide since the 1990s. His work once set the record at Sotheby’s auction of contemporary Chinese art. His works have been collected by many art museums, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Denver Art Museum, Chicago Architecture Museum and many others in Europe and Asia.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dong Yue Su works on the Chinese-language version of Yishu – Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art and is assistant to Shengtian Zheng, Managing Editor of Yishu and one of the curators of the Vancouver Biennale. Dong has an MA in art history and a second MA in East Asian Studies and is a veteran Chinese journalist.