In the Shadow of Hysterical Laughter: Execution, by Yue Minjun

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It’s a story as old as time: art bearing witness to the horrors of humanity, or art as a salute to sensible souls. Yue Minjun fits into this history through a rather closed and inspired practice. In 1995, he introduced Exeuction, an homage to Goya’s Tres de Mayo, this time set in the heart of the Forbidden City. This is a story that was deliberately swept under the rug by the Chinese Communist Party. Minjun borrows his long, sharp brush strokes from Goya or Velazquez to better highlight contemporary suffering – the suffering of a people, of a humanity so soaked in violence and censorship that they have nothing left but laughter to escape this brutality. Execution depicts four prisoners and four executioners, sharing the same face and the same laughter; a hysterical laughter.

But Minjun is an artist who tries to be ‘light’ – pop and ironic like never before. These canvases flirt with caricature. Sometimes, the bright colors and over-exaggerated traits are able to bring a comic dimension to the drama playing out on the canvas. According to Yue Minjun, “… when you see someone laughing, the first thing you think is that he’s happy, but if you observe carefully, you’ll find other things.” His paintings often recall the laughing face of Buddha, while theorist Li Xianting describes these self-portraits as “a self-ironic reaction to the spiritual emptiness and the madness of modern China.” These canvases allowed him to be grouped into the Chinese artistic movement of cynic realism – a distinction that Yue Minjun doesn’t acknowledge. For him: “The act of smiling, of laughing to hide one’s powerlessness has great importance for my generation,” adding about Execution, “This painting expresses my feelings. It’s not a critique.” In reality, when the painting was sold to an anonymous collector in 1995 through a Hong Kong gallery, one of the conditions of its sale was not to show the work in public so as not to endanger the artist.

Yue Minjun takes his distance from the theme of the work. “I don’t want the audience to think of a place or an event,” he said to CNN before denying that the red wall in the background of his painting is that of the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square. Yue Minjun’s art must be looked at through a surreal or absurd prism, a prism where gaiety meets drama, like one goes from laughter to tears. Execution is based on a distorted pleasure, a nameless scene. Characters appear in a surreal bright pink, while the misery of the scene can be gleaned through the violence that’s anchored in collective memory. In fact nothing except the title gives away the fact that these men are being executed. Receiving 4.2 million euros at Sotheby’s London in 2007, Yue Minjun has carved out an exceptional place for himself on the art market. Laughing to avoid the tears, Execution is first and foremost anchored around a feeling as primordial as it is universal. “Joy is a feeling that everyone can accept. Of course, when you look at one of my paintings long enough, you can feel that they’re expressions of sadness or pain.”

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