"Salute", from the later period of Yue Minjun's "smiling faces" works, containing all of the elements of the paintings which have made Yue famous globally, is a mature and measured reflection on the angst and pain of the individual in modern Chinese society, a bewildering and perplexing smorgasbord of conflicting idealisms and ideologies which wrench the individual apart. An apparently classic portrait of a soldier saluting is overturned and subverted as Yue's trademark self-portrait grins out wildly. Along with the incongruity of the manic grin on the soldier's face, which in real-life would be imperturbable and unreadable, the absurdity of the situation is further emphasized by his tightly shut eyes against the sunlight falling on his face, as if he needs to shut out the world and hide his pain and fears behind a grinning a mask.
Yue Minjun's pictures are some of the most recognizable and immediately identifiable works from the contemporary Chinese art world. He is one of the major players along with artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi and Cai Guo-qiang, having achieved international recognition and acclaim early in his career with his paintings much sought after by international museums and collectors. As with most of his contemporaries he is intent on exploring the socio-political realities of present day China, and while contemplating the complexities of existence, unlike say Zeng Fanzhi whose works are dark and brooding, Yue takes a humorous, light-hearted and sympathetic approach to the individual struggling to comprehend his place and role in an ever changing and complicated world.
Yue's view of life, and his portrayal of his philosophical ruminations in his works are inherently influenced by his reasonably privileged early life, his attempt to break away from conformity and collectivism, his early dalliance with a bohemian lifestyle in an artist's commune, and the shock and horror in 1989 at both the Chinese government's crackdown on the art world, and Tiananmen Square. His smiling self-portraits first appeared in 1993, and they were a way for him to escape the pain and incomprehension of the world around him, while playfully exposing his own and others' deep angst. His answer seems to be to laugh at life's conundrums, and maintain a sense of humor, even if you are facing a firing squad in Tiananmen Square, one of his most famous depictions.
Yue was unstable and unsatisfied as a worker, he entered Hebei Normal University where he studied art. On graduating he left the safe and secure life of his parents behind and moved into an early artist's commune in Beijing much to his parents' chagrin. Life was not easy there, as most artists were considered undocumented migrant workers, but Yue reveled in the freedom of life compared to his life in the oil camps. For the first time he could decide his own schedule, his own lifestyle, and discuss his real thoughts with likeminded friends. Yue's early art was realistic in style. He liked to paint things that he saw. He has said that if he saw a pretty girl outside, when he got home he wanted to paint her. Or if he saw a flock of geese flying overhead in formation he wanted to paint it immediately. With the constant change of locations in his early life as his parents' jobs entailed constant movement, Yue developed a keen sense of observation, both of the physical world around him, and of his own internal world. These traits stayed with him in his smiling portraits as a lot of their absurdity comes from the incongruousness of the realistic subject matter paired with the intoxicating grinning self-portraits, such as a flock of Geese being ridden by smiling Yues.
Although life in the artist village seemed carefree and idyllic, events in the outside world were anything but, and were to have lasting effects on artistic expression. As China opened up to the world in the 1980s, artists became exposed to Western art traditions for the first time. A large artistic avant-garde movement grew up especially in Beijing, which explored the ills of society and the angst and suffering of individuals. The Chinese government had no idea how to react to this newfound freedom of expression. In 1989, they allowed the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art known as "No U-Turn". On the opening day, one of the artists fired a gun at her installation. The reaction was brutal and strong, the exhibition was immediately shut down, and artists were rounded up by the authorities and warned that "freedom of expression" had ended and that if they defied this, they would be sent to the countryside for reeducation. Some months later, the crackdown in Tiananmen Square took place, and the position of the authorities could not be clearer. The art world became very quiet for the next two of years.
For artists meeting together became a very dangerous activity. Isolated from their peers, they became more introspective and thought long and hard about how they could express themselves with an intolerant government watching them closely. In true Oriental fashion they found the answer, veil or mask what you truly think and feel, behind a veneer of normalcy. One of the movements which came out of this is "Cynical Realism" which uses an ironic or humorous attitude to examine deep issues, and Yue Minjun is one if its greatest proponents.
As Zeng Fanzhi adopted the concept of a mask, Yue Minjun created his iconic smiling self-portrait as a way to interpret the individual in a society where having free or independent thoughts or ideas was tantamount to treason. Yue has said that he was inspired by the movies, where an actor plays different roles, but behind the role the actor is always himself or herself such as an icon like Marilyn Monroe. An icon carries a message and from this Yue got the idea of using an exaggerated self-portrait to ironically comment on the individual's and society's ills. Depicting figures with large faces, open mouths, shiny rows of teeth and closed eyes, Yue Minjun created an icon of the times. Faced with a meaningless, heartless and absurd world, we can and do laugh back. Yue has said "in Chinese tradition you can't say things directly. You have to show something else for real meaning. I wanted to show a happy smile and that behind it is something sad, and even dangerous. I wanted to express how I was feeling, lost and hurt, and the best way was with ridiculous laughter, hiding the bad feelings behind a smile. Arousing feelings of strength and self-mockery to relieve the unhappiness in my heart. Art should be an expression of one's particular feelings. One remains outwardly cheerful and confident when faced with difficulties and hardships in life."
"Salute" is an iconic and magnificent representation of Yue's work. Employing a Pop Art style, Yue uses techniques from comic books, propaganda posters and advertisements. Oversized features and the expression come from comic characters, the white teeth, red lips and pink skin from advertising, and the happy soldier is straight from a propaganda poster. However the closed eyes stop the viewer peering into and connecting with the figure's soul, and as with real life laughter we feel a little isolated, and cut off. We want to laugh with him, but instead we feel a sense of disconnectedness and a little sadness that we cannot know what he is really thinking, whether he is hiding pain or sadness, or if he is hiding subversive thoughts. And this is the true hallmark of a great artist, provoking different reactions, and different views of his work.