Joy is a complex and multifaceted concept that has been the subject of philosophical inquiry for centuries. At its core, joy is an emotional state characterized by a sense of elation, pleasure, and contentment. But it is more than just a fleeting feeling. Born in the year 1962 in the bustling city of Daqing, China, Yue Minjun’s fascination with art had been a constant in his life following him through the turbulent waters of revolutionary China. It was the human rights violations and political repressions he faced during his upbringing that truly shaped his relationship with the medium and its power to truly, and comically, convey his lived experience.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 48. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
After completing his studies in the Fine Arts Department of Hebei University in 1985, he set out to create works that would leave a lasting impression on the world. Yue Minjun’s brushstrokes evoke a joyful and whimsical world, where satire and playfulness blend seamlessly. His fantastical paintings feature vibrant self-portraits that offer a unique commentary on modern society, capitalism and the tropes of Chinese history. With his signature fluorescent hues and infectious grin, Yue’s compositions create a paradoxical sense of menace and mirth, making him a true pioneer of social commentary.
Other philosophers have taken a more nuanced approach to joy, exploring its relationship to other emotions and experiences. For example, the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that joy is intimately connected to suffering, and that it is only by embracing and overcoming our suffering that we can experience true joy. Similarly, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze saw joy as arising from a kind of radical openness to the world, a willingness to embrace the unknown and the unpredictable.
With his trademark smile, Yue’s paintings, sculptures, and installations depict systematic laughing pink faces that could be seem as self-portraits. Each piece tells a story through various personal experiences, political anxieties, social mockery and his struggle for individualism in an oppressed world. This all-in contrast against the figures’ laughter. Despite being classified as part of the Chinese Cynical Realist movement, Yue refuses to be boxed in and sees his art as a unique moment in history, not bound to any registered style.
In the early 1990s, a group of individuals emerged in China’s contemporary art scene, each with their unique and creative outlooks. Among them was Yue Minjun, whose contribution would become a defining characteristic of this period. It was a time of transformation, as China moved into its important second phase, marked by a renewed focus on the theme of politically motivated art. This phase followed the first wave, which began in 1985 with the New Wave Movement.
“The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference,” – Audre Lorde
Yue Minjun’s passion for art began at a young age, but he was faced with the challenge of having to work before he could even apply to art school. However, he refused to give up on his dreams and eventually convinced his supervisors to allow him to attend university. In 1985, he graduated from the oil painting department of Hebei Normal University, but his journey was far from over. Yue moved to Beijing to join the growing community of artists in the Yuanmingyuan area, where he immersed himself in the emerging art scene. He was drawn to the sense of camaraderie and collaboration among his fellow artists.
With a vast array of influences from Chinese socialist realism to Surrealism and European classical paintings, Yue’s work offers a rich tapestry of inspiration that is palpable in every brushstroke. Through deft use of sculpture techniques and impeccably smooth, well-blended brushwork reminiscent of propaganda painters who painted Mao’s face during the cultural revolution. Through his art, Yue offers a light-hearted philosophical inquiry into the existence of helpless citizens and the physiological fallout felt by the population, reminding us to find joy in even the darkest moments.
“I feel that the act of giving up is a state of humanity. It prevents one from conflicting with society yet maintaining inner peace. To be able to give it all up allows one to be nonchalant and detached. All problems can be solved with laughter – they simply disappear without causing any heartache. This is how one may attain extraordinary peacefulness within one’s inner self,” Yue Minjun
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Guan Xi, 2002.
You were raised during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution [1966 to 1976]. During these bewildering complex times, how much control did individuals have over their own joy?
At that time, I didn’t know what happiness was. Looking back later, the happiness in the immature period was instinctive and a kind of growing happiness.
Growing up, when did you realize there was restraint on your own joy and freedom and when did you experience that freedom that came after?
When I realised happiness, I was in my 20s. I realised that happiness comes from a kind of freedom of expression. When I am restricted by morality and power, you will feel pain.
What is joy? It is not mere happiness, but it is also not devoid of it. Joy is a core human experience, but we often don’t understand the true depth of its meaning in our lives. What is joy and what does it say about us?
Happiness is the temptation to keep us living. It is a part of the logic of natural survival. You can experience it, but you cannot grasp it.
During the revolution, there was a pinhole focus on censorship, particularly freedom of speech and thought. What did this time teach you about cultural subversion versus individuality and how does this translate in your work?
In a certain period, I will choose a more obscure way to work, and I also need to wait for a loose freer period.
Are there values you hold or beliefs you have about the world that are connected to the experience of joy and happiness, do you also see those as connected? Are joy and happiness separate entities?
Values directly affect happiness. It is a perceivable concept that cannot be proven.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Big Parrots-1, 2003.
As a young boy you were already drawn to art and joined the chorus in 1991 when moving back to Beijing. But before you could think of applying to any nation’s art academies you were sent to work. What recollections do you have of navigating this system as a young boy?
The impression of work is cruel, which is extremely harmful to the individual.
Upon graduation, you moved to Beijing to join the first settlers in the Yuanmingyuan area. Located in the northwest suburbs of the city, it was rapidly shaping up as an artists’ village. Could you shed some light on how it felt not to have your individuality governed by forced labour?
I was very happy when I arrived in Yuanmingyuan. We call it the last romance, and I also felt a sense of freedom. I worked hard every day to create, and my whole body was full of energy, but at the same time, I also did a lot of other things in order to survive. Jobs like tutoring, renovation work, advertising, etc, but I still felt free.
How do you think satire is used to juxtapose capitalism and consumerism with Chinese communism during the eighties versus today?
The juxtapositions that appear in my works are inseparable from my rich historical present. My works have three backgrounds, capitalism, communism and traditional oriental history. They are our status quo and the source of all our contradictions.
You mention “the hardest thing about being an artist is he must endure pain and he must be a pessimist. He must feel the pain of mankind”. What is it like living with pain and pessimism as a consistent experience? How does this shape your life?
I think how painful and blessed the society is, this is a matter of the richness of perception, just like a tree, how rich the trunk and leaves are, how well-developed the root system below is.
You are best known for your oil paintings depicting a fixed protagonist in frozen laughter. This being yourself. How has your self-portrait evolved since the trademark smile?
It evolved from a time and state of life, and also from the content of the work. At present, more attention is paid to the cultural factors behind the self-portrait.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Untitled, 2014.
Your works seem jolly at first, but the ironic laughter rather emanates dark suffering, misery, absurdity and pain. Quite the opposite of joy. Could you elaborate on this illusion of happiness in your art including your lived experience?
During my college years, I participated in the sculpture work of making large Buddha statues, one of which was called Future Buddha. He is usually set at the front of the temple, we call it Maitreya Buddha, his image is topless, laughing and facing the audience. And there will also be a saying, laughing at the ridiculousness of the world, to remind people that life in the world is painful, and we can only face it with laughter. So my works come from my personal memory and my own tradition.
In 2021, your cackling heads made their way all over Comme des Garçons tailored garments and also transformed into a boxing ring installation at Dover Street Market in London. This witty social commentary is hard to miss. As an artist heavy in political documentation, how does the blend of politically motivated art and commercialisation coexist?
In my opinion, business is politics, and politics is business. They are a natural pair, and neither can do without the other.
Hosted at Hong Kong gallery space in 2022. You exhibited your iconic Laughter series. The series is a reflection of the experience of people who lived under the rapid reform in Chinese society since 1990. Do you think it is the artist’s role to restore and preserve historical memory, and why?
Only artists can truly record every moment of human beings, and they are the recorders of human souls, because artists face our world with a true state of mind.
What is your relationship with laughter? Do you laugh often? What was the last thing that made you laugh?
When I hear hearty laughter, I feel a complete release. I often seize the opportunity to let myself laugh out loud. I really can’t laugh at stupid people and things.
You are a leading figure of China’s post-Tiananmen generation of artists. A very creatively attuned generation. Could you describe the experience of having to self-stylize yourself as an artist back then?
I have experienced rapid changes in China, and these changes have affected the way I look at things. I must be eclectic, respect my own life experience, and express this uniqueness, so my creation also revolves around myself, I paint myself, I paint myself how I laugh at everything about myself, culture and history.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Them, 1996.
Many of your works were inspired by early Chinese realism propagandist works. These posters were an attempt to influence peoples’ opinions or behaviour. It may be a far fetch, but the dark nature of social media somewhat resembles the same perspectives. Censorship, influence, and conditioning of users, works similarly to social media. It’s a tool to edit, the past, present, and future. What is your opinion on social media and the involvement of it within society today?
The nature of social media is indeed dark, and it may destroy all the order we have established. The social structure established by human society is crumbling, and it appears so fragile in front of social media. I worry that human society cannot control new changes.
You ended your 10-year hiatus with an exhibition Smile at the Flower Sermon on view at Tang Contemporary Art in 2022. Could you tell us some observations you had during your hiatus and why your flower series has symbolised your welcomed return?
In my opinion, flowers are the laughter of plants, a new metaphor, which contains the laughter of the world, and an expression of the world and the universe. We use flowers to symbolise happiness. Cover those painful memories, so as to achieve visual pleasure.
The Flower series encapsulated a more romantic feel than any other series. The flower embodied a sense of happiness, and joy if you will among the grim realities of the pandemic. What were some of the other blooming observations during your experience in lockdown?
In addition to the series of flowers, I also created a series of Return series. The current one is going back to history and rejecting the status quo.
What do you do to find joy in such difficult times?
Look at the blooming f lowers more, let the f lowers be intoxicated.
What demands are put on you as an artist today?
I hope the society has more tolerance.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Sunf lowers, 2003.
In majority of your paintings like Mushroom Cloud and Take the Plunge can be interrupted by an army of laughing men situated inside the paintings. Does this relate to individual people, and the way they can easily become lost when absorbed into a large mass or could it be interpreted that these men could resemble the power of human connection?
Every painting is related to personal experience. Mushroom Cloud is my thinking about the atomic bomb, and Water is about love and hatred for the capitalist way of life.
What do the men represent with regards to gender stereotypes within Chinese society at that time?
Men rule the world, and women become dispensable accessories.
The most direct and sensitive way to observe the country’s changes is through arts and culture. You have stated before the radical growth and popularity of gallery representation in China. What is your view on western galleries and what are some of the tools you utilize when working together with a gallery?
I have cooperated with Benxi Gallery before, but my paintings do not adapt to the rhythm of the gallery. We still need to get in touch and understand each other.
Your brush works are smooth, all traces of brushwork are intricately concealed but appropriate a similar style that propaganda painters who painted Mao’s face during the cultural revolution used. Was this intentional and could you tell us a little bit about your drawing and creation process?
 I emphasized some smooth surfaces to show that the characters look glamorous and healthy, and the public is more emotionally acceptable.
Finally, do your paintings intend to bring joy, interrogate it or both?
A little bit of both.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Sky Animal Human Bein, 2002.
Yueminjun Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Untitled-02, 2005.