The artist’s long-running streak has drawn nationalist attention online.
Popular Chinese artist Yue Minjun has become the latest target of China’s nationalist internet influencers and netizens, some of whom have accused him of insulting the country and tarnishing the image of the military with his iconic “laughing man” paintings.
Tweets and comments condemning the 61-year-old Beijing-based artist, one of China’s most popular contemporary artists, began appearing on social media platforms Weibo, WeChat and Douyin (TikTok in China) this week after a local think tank named Kun. The Lun Ce Institute republished a 2021 essay on its official WeChat that criticized the artist’s work for insulting China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As of Friday, May 26, images believed to be Yue’s work linked to the PLA had been censored from Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
The latest attacks on Yue appear to be in line with a spate of crackdowns and censorship of satire and comedy in China this month, including in Hong Kong, for being disrespectful to the authorities, particularly the PLA.
On May 17, comedy company Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co was fined 13.35 million yuan ($1.9 million) and forfeited 1.35 million yuan ($191,270) for “illegal profits” after one of its shows was accused of “causing harm to society”. a joke about the military. Malaysian-born comedian Nigel Ng, who stars as Uncle Roger, went silent on Chinese social media this week after making jokes about the country in one of his recent appearances. Also last week’s Hong Kong paper Ming Pao After 40 years of publication, the comics column by master political cartoonist Wong Kei-Kwan, who goes by his artist name Zunzi, has been axed.
As a key figure in the cynical realism movement led by artists who witnessed the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that emerged in the 1990s after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, Yue’s depiction of hideous, exaggerated laughing faces is said to: or his alter-ego. The works are widely seen as a symbolic artistic expression and reflection of the country’s era of transformation and its rise as a global economic powerhouse.
Yue’s works have been widely exhibited in China and abroad in recent decades. His recent solo show Eudaimonia at Tang Contemporary in Beijing, which closed on February 15, featured new works from this Flower series, as well as works depicting the recurring motif of a laughing man. A review published on Chinese website Artron praises the artist’s breakthrough in recent years in creating new work while continuing to reflect the human psyche in a changing, unpredictable reality.
The revived essay, however, is directed at Yue 2007 Armed Forces – Plate No. 17. The work depicts three laughing men each donning a hat representing the Army, Navy and PLA Air Force respectively. The figures also have what appear to be devil horns on their heads, rising through the hoods. (Both hats and devil horns are recurring motifs in the artist’s work.)
Armed Forces – Plate No. 17 painted hanging in the He Art Museum (HEM) back in 2021, a young private museum in Shunde, Guangdong, southern China. Artnet News contacted the museum to ask if the work was still on the wall, but did not receive a response when it was published. A reprinted essay accused the display of this work as “an incident of an organized effort to insult the military and the anti-Chinese Communist Party.” The text lists other pictures of Yue that are considered offensive to the military as well as former Chinese leaders.
The essay, which was uploaded on May 18, the day after the Shanghai comedy company was fined, spread like wildfire on the Chinese Internet. One tweet on Weibo said the depiction of soldiers in the pictures was exaggerated. “They give people the impression they were done on purpose,” the user wrote in the post, which has nearly 80,000 likes. Another tweet said that paintings like Yue’s, aimed at the country’s dignity, attract the West and sell for high prices as a result.
The controversy heated up yesterday when one user called for a blanket ban on the artist. One commented on Weibo saying that Yue should be banned from the October Wuzhen Theater Festival, where he was appointed as a member of the artistic committee.
Tang Contemporary Gallery, which represents Yu, declined to comment. Yue could not be reached for comment. Yesterday, the artist posted on his Instagram a picture of a fragmented laughing face embodied in a Buddhist sculpture.
Talking about his art in a 2012 interview New York TimesYue said his pictures weren’t about laughing at anyone, as they were mostly self-portraits. But he admitted at the time that his work is a matter of reality and “a smile does not necessarily mean happiness. it could be something else,” he was quoted as saying New York Times. “And that laugh. anyone who has been through the recent Chinese experience will understand that.”
Yue gained international fame by selling his signature painting Execution (1995), which sold for a record £2.9 million ($5.97 million) at Sotheby’s London auction in October 2007, as Chinese modern art has become one of the most sought after. He was listed as one The timePeople of the year 2007
This record was broken the following year with the sale of his 1993 canvas work Gweong-gweong At Christie’s Hong Kong auction in May 2008, the work sold for HK$54 million ($6.9 million), setting Yue’s auction record. Although prices for Yue’s works at auctions have fallen in recent years as the market fever for Chinese contemporary art has cooled, his works are still actively traded on the secondary market and widely exhibited.
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