Yue Minjun was born in 1962 in the far northern Heilongjiang Province of China, and as a child moved to Beijing with his parents. He studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University and graduated in 1989, when China was rocked by student-led demonstrations and their suppression on Tiananmen Square in June of that year.
“My mood changed at that time,” he said. “I was very down. I realized the gap between reality and the ideal, and I wanted to create my own artistic definition, whereby there could be a meeting with social life and the social environment. So I developed this painting where you see someone laughing. At first you think he’s happy, but when you look more carefully, there’s something else there.” A smile,” Mr. Yue said, “doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”
The smile has been variously interpreted as a sort of joke at the absurdity of it all, or the illusion of happiness in lives inevitably heading toward extinction.
“In China there’s a long history of the smile,” Mr. Yue said. “There is the Maitreya Buddha who can tell the future and whose facial expression is a laugh. Normally there’s an inscription saying that you should be optimistic and laugh in the face of reality. There were also paintings during the Cultural Revolution period, those Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing,” he continued. “But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.” Mr. Yue said his smile was in a way a parody of those posters. But, since it’s a self-portrait, it’s also necessarily a parody of himself, he added.
“I’m not laughing at anybody else, because once you laugh at others, you’ll run into trouble, and can create obstacles,” he said. “This is the way to do it if you want to make a parody of the things that are behind the image.”
~ I cannot help but be struck by an awkward physical similarity to our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. His smile is more of a grimace, but there are definite parallels. The speedos and the boat people for a start…