Yue Minjun is widely known for his representations of manically laughing men. They pop up in virtually all of his paintings and sculptures. These figures are, in fact, representations of the artist himself, or of his alter ego.
His 25 identical bronze Contemporary Terracotta Warriors are dispersed around The Donum Estate in groups and pairs. A reinterpretation of the legendary Terracotta Army, the collection of statues representing the armies of China's first emperor that were buried with him in the 2nd Century B.C. Yue's version represents a small company of laughing, bare-footed soldiers who hold clenched fists at the sides of their heads in a satirical salute. With their inexplicably jolly expressions, these figures are reminiscent of the Laughing Buddha, or of the smiling propaganda images produced by Chinese socialist realist artists during the Cultural Revolution.
"In my work, laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, absence of rights that society has imposed on us," he explains. "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."
"To laugh is an expression of pain," he adds. "When you've endured the maximum level of pain you can tolerate, all you could do is laugh. It could be about life, society, health, death."
Untitled depicts a man standing with one hand clasped around his elbow, revealing a watch around his wrist—the man is laughing hysterically, for no apparent reason. Both the laughter and the male figure are hallmarks for Yue Minjun’s work. He is best known for oil paintings that depict himself in various settings, frozen in laughter. He later started reproducing this image in sculpture, watercolor and prints. While Yue is often classified as part of the Chinese "Cynical Realist" movement, which developed in China around 1989, Yue himself rejects this label. Nevertheless, Yue Minjun’s signature image of laughter has often been interpreted as an ironic, powerfully political appeal for freedom of speech and democracy. In Untitled, as in so many of Yue Minjun’s paintings, laughter is used as an expression of both violence and vulnerability. It reveals a suppressed feeling of anxiety that many people today might feel under the pressures of rapid industrialization and cultural changes.
Yue Minjun was born in 1962 in the Northeastern city of Daqing, Heilongjiang Province, China, and lives and works in Beijing. Yue studied at Hebei Normal University in the 1980s, training as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Beginning in the late 1980s, during the political upheavals leading to the Tiananmen protests, Yue began using his art to understand the societal changes taking place in China.