AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Julian Kalmanoff

Yue Minjun Exhibition

While the various pieces of art by Yue Minjun all have different meanings and reference different important events throughout the artist’s life, all of his works have one thing in common, a smile. Any person drawn by Yue is shown as having that same signature grin which has far more meaning that it appears to have on the surface and Yue is not the first artist to even use this smile. Within China a new art movement had sprouted from the events that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the cynical realism movement. Despite Yue consistently claiming his art was never a part of this movement it absolutely had a large influence on his style. Artists like Fang Lijun and Liu Wei also used this wide grin in their art as a way to criticize and rebel against the government. While each artist may use the smile for different purposes it is always at least meant to mock the government, after all, if they can’t fight back physically they can at least laugh at them. While this smile is used in all of his works, one of the most notable works of his would be Sea of the Brain (2001). This work depicts Yue with his head open and inside a body of water where Mao Zedong can be seen swimming. This is definitely a reference to when Mao went for a swim in the Yangtze River. The fact that it is within his head however could represent the oppressiveness of the government during the reign of Mao and how every aspect of everyone’s lives were controlled in order to fit Mao’s image for China. The grin on the person is a way to try and mock these efforts by laughing and smiling through them. Another thing to note is that the person depicted is clearly the artist himself which can mean that this is how he sees himself. While the influence of Mao was so intense it was reaching the brains of the people, he was simply laughing at it in defiance at how ridiculous this level of control was. This work is one of many that will be shown within the following exhibition with the focal point being the signature grin depicted in Yue’s many works. It will contain a series of both his paintings and his sculptures which are just as famous as the paintings.



Cohen, Andrew. 2013. “YUE MINJUN.” ArtAsiaPacific, Jul, 104. https://libproxy.union.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/yue-minjun/docview/1542882532/se-2.

Execution by Yue Minjun (1995)

This piece by Yue Minjun has clear inspiration from the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 where the military opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds. As with the majority of Minjun’s works, everyone is depicted with a massive grin. I see this a representing how the people under the CCP had to always appear happy with the state of their country even this wasn’t true because if you expressed your dissatisfaction you would be killed. As stated in an interview in 2015, Yue Minjun says “In my work, laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us. In short, life. It makes you feel obsolete, which is why, sometimes, you only have laughter as a revolutionary weapon to fight against cultural and human indifference”. Knowing this, it can be interpreted that with nothing the victims of the Tiananmen square massacre could do nothing but smile. I also find it interesting that the people who are supposed to be the shooters are also smiling, possibly showing that the military had to shoot because if they did not prove their loyalty to the CCP, they could just as well share the same fate. To Minjun, Laughter is almost like a form of mockery of the CCP for how ridiculous their actions are and to show that despite being powerless, the victims can still demine their killers with one final act.

Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun is a contemporary Chinese artist who was born in 1962 in Daqing City, China. He is most famous for his self portraits where he draws himself with a unique smile, always laughing. While many people categorize his art with cynical realism he disagrees with this classification and claims his art is unique and doesn’t fit under any current style. Going to art school in the 80s, he witnessed the changes that were going on in China leading up to Tiananmen Square. He used his art to represent the changes going on throughout China in the following years. He has also done a collaboration with the artist KAWS where they made a figure inspired by Yue’s art.

Julian Kalmanoff

Hi, my name is Julian Kalmanoff and I am a freshmen. I am currently undecided on my major but I have considering history, science, or art. Some of my hobbies are listening to music, playing video games, watching shows, and travel. Some of the games I have been playing recently are Assassins’ Creed IV Black Flag and Minecraft. Below I have added a picture of my favorite place I have visited, Tinges in France.

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