Ni Hao Smiley Face. Yue Minjun at the Cartier Foundation

Paris. Has your company already been sold to Chinese investors?

No? But your boss is fluent in Mandarin and your Chinese subsidiary well established for a couple of years by now?

If not... well, I don't want to scare you, but maybe you were better off if the world had ended in 2012 (can't trust these Mayas).

Such is the zeitgeist of times when management schools have condensed all their lectures into a single mantra: "China is the Future".

There is no way Cartier Foundation could escape the trend and here comes their exhibition of Yue Minjun. If you are a Chinese yourself, you might have been offered a trip to Paris when buying some jewellery for your wife recently - or did they use the opportunity to ask you for one or two works from your collection?

 

Cartier Foundation is located in the south of Paris, in the one-time artistic borough of Montparnasse. The ground floor and the basement are reserved for exhibitions and the six upper storeys - well, they are there and certainly as important as the whole building is impressive.

Talking about the exhibition space, maybe it does not give the best impression if the first thing you see of a gallery is a number of big red interdiction pictograms plastering the entry door. "No photos." "No baby buggies." "No cigarettes." "No coat hangers (wtf?!)." "No suitcases."

I got a bit anxious when I took out my notebook (the archaic paper version) but it seemed to be okay.

 

Yue Minjun paints smiling Chinese people, sometimes complete figures, sometimes just giant heads. Their exaggerated expression reminds of 18th century Messerschmidt sculptures (there was a splendid exhibition at the Louvre last year!). The overview on Minjun's career from the 1990s up to recent works is called "Le Fou Rire" - "The Mad Laughter" and you could not imagine a better-suited title.

Perfecting the proverbial Asian politeness these faces have learned to smile in order to conceal their true feelings in a country where telling what you think is all but recommended. Moreover, this laughter is a helpless comment on the absurdities of a totalitarian system. Yue Minjun's works seem much more political and dissident than Ai Weiwei's but apparently he has never experienced comparable troubles with the regime, which is just another paradox of contemporary China that could make you - smile.

 

What is really on a Chinese mind, behind the mask?

Minjun gives hints with a series of four heads cut open in Hannibal Lecter style. In place of a brain we see rising balloons ("Memory-2", 2000), stretched out arms holding Mao Bibles ("Memory-4", 2000), a man swimming in blue water who could be the historic leader himself ("Water", 1998), and the same personage swimming in a red liquid (blood? "Memory-3", 2000). The latter two paintings constitute rare exceptions in the artist's works, as the person with his head cut open is actually looking serious.

On "Untitled" (1994) a man carries a smiling head in his hands and where it should naturally be we see only clouds on the blue sky (maybe it would be an over-interpretation to think of Holofernes presenting his own head, as Judiths are not wanted in one child policy).

The smiling attitude is not only a survival strategy in a country where for political reasons it is best to always appreciate and never say no, but it proves useful in business, too. Yue Minjun's "Everybody connect to everybody" (1997) shows office staff linked in full-clothed copulation before LinkedIn even existed.

 

For these personages the false smile has become a part of their nature that is impossible to drop even in the most serious of situations. In the middle of a street fight the corpses are laughing ("Freedom Leading the People", 1996) and after the revolt's suppression executioners and executed are united in the same grotesque laughter ("The execution", 1995 - a reinterpretation of art history: Manet, "The Execution of Emperor Maximilian", 1867/8). Both works are unambiguous comments on the Tiananmen Massacre from 1989.

 

China has evolved since into the great dialectic paradox of capitalist communism.

"The Death of Marat" is an accurate copy of Jacques Louis David's painting from 1794 - with the only difference that Marat is missing. The revolutionary has vanished from Yue Minjun's version: all that is left is the decor. In the same spirit the artist reproduced two major propaganda paintings that each depict leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. "The Founding Ceremony of the Nation" has already been repainted several times by its creator Dong Xiwen since its original creation in 1953, as functionaries surrounding Mao Zedong subsequently fell in disgrace and needed to be removed. In Yue Minjun's version just everybody has disappeared - up to Mao himself. When copying He Kongde's "Gutian Conference" (1970), Minjun again shows the room deserted of all men who participated in the historic meeting. The portraits of Marx and Engels are still hanging on the wall, but beneath them he added a detail that cannot be found in the original version - a campfire on the floor that will soon devour the whole scenery.

 

A major interest of Yue Minjun is how the world perceives this new China. Possibly as a monster (not the job search engine): "I am Dragon-3" (2008) - the familiar smile on a Godzilla-esque body?

At first the world's establishment had been amused by the rise of the Red Dragon: westerners on board of a ship take photos of a muscular Chinese swimmer ("Bystanders", 2011), but now everybody knows he will take over the bridge soon. These smiling Chinese no longer live on a "Isolated Island" (2010) - a painting depicting three laughing red devils - they are set free and nobody will stop them. When two Chinese dancers (or Tai Chi performers?) laugh with dinosaurs by a car wreck ("AD 3009", 2008) you know that even the apocalypse could not harm them (in a way Minjun's laughers are indeed zombie-like).

 

China's military powers cannot be underestimated either, it disposes over the world's largest standing army. Yue Minjun accordingly lets a fighter jet drop smiling men instead of bombs, whilst masses of uniformed schoolchildren cheer a Mao portrait beneath. In more peaceful images they set out to conquer the world flying on the back of wild geese ("Sky", 1997) or floating in an overcrowded ark like poor boat-people ("Monument", 2000). Alternate versions of the future, as China storms ahead.

 

When Minjun reflects on the sheer size of his people, he agrees with the Chinese government (and with common sense) that could use some of these paintings for a campaign promoting its birth control programme. Individuals vanish in a multiplication of identical faces.

At least these are smiling faces.

 

Yue Minjun, "Le Fou Rire", Fondation Cartier Paris, 14 November 2012-17 March 2013

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