Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995; Oil on canvas, 59.05" × 118.11"  

Sometimes short phrases suggest vast hinterlands of meaning. Such is the case with the title of a novel, Compulsory Happiness, by Norman Manea, a Rumanian writer now living in the United States. Happiness, of course, cannot be coerced: though expressions of it most certainly can. Manea’s title, then, perfectly captures the absurdity and menace of Ceaușescu’s Rumania: First destroy the possibility of human happiness and then make everyone smile, laugh, and proclaim their joy under threat of punishment if they refuse to do so. There is no better way for a dictator to subdue his people, to debase them and make them despise themselves.

The Chinese artist Yue Minjun, who has just had his first European exhibition in Paris at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, has made the smile and the laugh his special subject, just as the still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age Adriaan Coorte made the gooseberry and the asparagus his.

Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and therefore came to consciousness during the Cultural Revolution; he was adolescent when it was still a very raw memory and when, given China’s recent history, the liberalization might still have seemed a cunning trap to catch the unwary and the ideologically unsound. It is hardly surprising that he came to see facial expression not as a window on thought and feeling but as a mask for them, a mask to deceive others and even, when worn long enough, the wearer himself.

Yue’s canvases are large—they are definitely not designed for the boudoir—and the colors he uses are bright, the sky for example is always of purest cerulean. But the principal feature of much of his work is the human figures in it, all identical and most often stylized portraits of himself, with precisely the same open-mouthed expression of laughter. The eyes of all the people are tightly shut by the extremity of the laughter, as if the latter served the dual purpose of disguising real thoughts and emotions and of shutting out the world around them because it is too painful to observe. Yue Minjun belongs to a school of contemporary Chinese painting called Cynical Realism, an obvious reference to the Socialist Realism that was obligatory within living memory. The impact of the sum of his work is greater than the impact of its parts.

That there is nothing of hilarity or amusement in the laughter he depicts. Rather, his works are full of desperation and terror which are signalled in more than one way. Expressions are uniform, as in the figures in the paintings, only where there is fear or intimidation, by whatever force or for whatever reason. Where there is freedom, there is difference; uniformity implies coercion, whether it be political or other. We should be ill-advised to adopt the complacent view that such uniformity can be produced by, or exist in, only totalitarian regimes; for in our own increasingly over-regulated, fearful, and risk-averse societies, where in many places we fear to say what we think and even have begun to fear to think what we cannot say, the mask of uniformity is beginning to cover our faces. Yue pictures suggest a world in which mental, if not of physical, cloning is being attempted.

A second signal of the mirthlessness of the laugh depicted by Yue is the situation in which the figures in his paintings are laughing. For example, he re-works Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, replacing all the figures in Delacroix’s picture by his own dressed identically à la chinoise in white t-shirts and simple blue shorts, all—including the dead in the foreground of the picture—with the same laughing expression and with the eyes hermetically sealed. The dead have died laughing. It is as if Yue were commenting on the willful blindness of men even as they acted in a situation of the greatest historical importance.

In a similar vein is his reworking of Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. In this picture, the men to be executed wear underpants only; they too are laughing uproariously. We do not see the entire faces of the firing squad, but the little we see signifies that they, too, are laughing heartily, and are identical to the men they are to shoot. Another identical figure has turned away from the scene, presumably the man who is to give the order to fire, and he is holding his stomach in an attempt to control his bladder as he laughs uproariously. The background is formed by one of the walls of the Forbidden City.

The picture is enigmatic, however, for the firing squad that takes aim holds no guns. Is this all a charade, then, and is that why all the participants are laughing? But even if it is a charade, it is a deeply sinister one in the context: namely that of a recent history in which millions of people died by violence and many millions more by political directive in pursuit of mad ideas already known to be disastrous when implemented. The charade is about as amusing as would be that of an extermination camp; the identity of those to be shot with the firing squad suggests the arbitrary nature of fate of ordinary men in a totalitarian dictatorship; and the fact that people are constrained to laugh at the imaginary reenactment of executions of themselves (if that is what the picture depicts) suggests likewise that the dictatorship, at least that over minds, has not yet passed.

Not quite all of Yue’s pictures, however, are of laughing clones. One, for example, called Memory, shows the back of a man’s head from which the top has been removed like a boiled egg. A small Mao swims, laughingly, inside the skull; the liquid in which he swims is of an uneven pink color and consistency, suggestive of a mixture of blood and liquefied brains. This is a reminder, if we needed it, that successful brainwashing rests upon a firm foundation of violence. The picture also suggests that it is not so easy to disembarrass a mind of Mao—who delighted to colonize the minds of hundreds of millions of his compatriots—once he has entered it. After all, Mao’s portrait still hangs above the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Two paintings are particularly remarkable, and very different from the others, in which unexpected absence is more powerful than presence. The first is Yue Minjun’s re-working of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of the death of Marat. It is an exact copy of David’s, except for one important detail: the bath is empty. Yue calls it The Death of Marat, but what the emptiness of the bath suggests is not the death of the man but of his ideals, so-called, and perhaps of their emptiness, certainly of humanity, from their very first enunciation. Marat was, of course, a Maoist avant la lettre; or perhaps I should say, Mao was a Maratist.

The second is a re-working of Dong Xiwen’s famous picture The Founding of the Nation, painted in high Socialist Realist style in 1953. In this picture Mao reads the declaration of the founding of the People’s Republic from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. In the far distance, in Tiananmen Square, are the ranks of the masses, with forests of huge red flags; in front of Mao are the upright microphones. Beside him to the left, and very much less prominent, but still recognizable, are the other leaders of the Revolution.

In Yue’s reworking, the masses are still there, flags flying, as are the microphones, but Mao and all the other leaders are missing. The podium is empty. Here too the emptiness of rhetoric is powerfully suggested: its emptiness is of value, not of effect. No one who witnessed the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution could possibly doubt the effect of rhetoric upon the real world. And every Chinese would know that The Founding of the Nation has existed in seven versions, each new version having to expunge or reinsert one of Mao’s companions in the Revolution according to Mao’s favor or disfavor of the day. To have emptied the podium of them all, then, lock, stock, and barrel, was to pass a powerful comment upon the Chinese Revolution itself and its enterprise from the very beginning. One admires the artist’s courage in doing so, given that the present leadership is in apostolic succession to Mao, a succession that makes him undisavowable even while policies are pursued that are completely different from his and in such flagrant contradiction with his ideas, that have been comprehensively refuted by experience, such that not even the greatest dialectical subtlety can produce a Hegelian synthesis. No wonder that people have to wear facial expressions as a mask, including that of laughter; perhaps, after all, there is something funny, or at least absurd, to laugh at in the situation. The exhibition was called L’Ombre du fou rire, the Shadow of Uncontrollable Laughter.

The exhibition raises, at least in my mind, two theoretical questions. Yue’s work, despite its compositional skill, is striking rather than beautiful. In an interview published in the catalogue, he specifically denied the wish to create the beautiful; for him to do so would be to ignore, avoid, or evade the ugliness of the modern world, it would be a kind of treason to reality. But the world has always had its ugliness. If the creation of beauty is irrelevant, or worse still a moral evasion, until such time as the world becomes free of its imperfections, then nothing beautiful would ever have been, would be now, or will ever be created. In other words, Yue Minjun has not quite freed himself of utopian modes of thought. To adapt slightly Lord Macaulay’s famous dictum about freedom: “Many thinkers are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to pursue beauty till the world is free of ugliness. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim.”

The second question that the exhibition raised in my mind is the degree to which it is necessary to know an historical, social, and political context in order to appreciate at least some works of art (as Yue Minjun’s works indisputably are). What would his work mean to those who knew nothing of Mao, Marat, Manet, Maximilian, and Dong Xiwei?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 10, on page 31
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