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September 25, 2003
The faces with gaping mouths show rows of white and neat teeth. There are more teeth in the mouths than normally encountered in general situations, and the looks resemble faces found in advertisements for toothpastes. This is thus the characteristic look of his works: paintings with himself as the model, in "artificial" laughing expressions. It is a laughter that does not always mean joy; often they even create some bitter feelings.
Look at a painting displayed in the CP Open Biennale currently taking place in the National Gallery in Jakarta. There were six laughing men amid attacks of several jet fighters, combat choppers, and tanks, with smoke billowing into the sky. Here, laughter is precisely ironical.
"With that painting, I indeed want to play on the existing reality," explained Yue Minjun, the painter, on Monday (Sept 22) night during the discussion with the contributing artists in the biennale. He projected several slides of his works, accompanied by various explanations.
He added: "Why do I use my own face? To me, the personal is important, very important. I was born in the sixties, the government used to control everything so that there were no individuals. The personal was then considered as a kind of crime. It is no longer so. I realize that the individual is important; therefore, my face and my body are also important."
Yue is one of the leading artists from the new generation of Chinese artists. Present with him at the biennale is Fang Lijun, a leader of the group, who also uses his own face in his works. Within the art circle, their generation is commonly called the "Chinese Avant-Garde."
According to Fang, he is portraying general characters, conditions, and situations, although he uses his own face. He does not intend to create a certain character. "This is my protest against the government that has uniformed all of our lives," he said.
The thirty-year uniforming processes in Indonesia have created myriad protests whose echoes are still discernible in artistic expressions, and the Chinese artists are experiencing a similar problem.
It is interesting to follow the conversations of these two male artists from China. They are peers. Yue is 41; Fang, 40. Both are bald, just like the action-movies actor Jet Li, and are fast-talking in Mandarin, interspersed with English expressions. The painter Chusin and the collector Dedi Kusuma are helping to translate the conversations.
Considering their age, Fang and Yue are not direct victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that has swallowed the country"s intellectuals and artists. Theirs is the Tiananmen era, whose picture and dramatic events when a solitary man stood facing the coming tanks soon gripped the world.
It can be said that some artists and the life of the new art in China were "benefited" by the huge exposure of the tragedy. Included in the exposure was the art exhibition called "China/Avant-Garde" whose forced closure by the government had triggered demonstrations by the artists.
It is not easy to imagine what they were thinking and feeling amid the chaotic and tumultuous era. They say that in 1989 there were sea changes in the artistic consciousness in China. The contemporary art was thus born, centered in one particular place. Gathered there were about 200 artists, whose works were most probably disliked by the government.
In 1994, the government found out this clandestine activity. Pressures were made. "The government banned and even often closed down the exhibitions," says Fang Lijun.
The government"s assaults, however, did not make the artists give up. Within a day, they could find another place and gather again in what they often called as the "Artists" Village."
They add that the government is now starting to take artists under its wing, as it realizes that artistic endeavors are not as dangerous as it has previously thought. Does this mean that all activities can go on smoothly without disturbances now?
"Not really. So far, the artists are still fighting with the police," says Fang.
They grew up in a rather difficult time. Fang Lijun"s grandfather was wealthy in the time before the Communist era, and this brought misery in his childhood. His family were thought of as a part of the bourgeoisie and became a target of the Cultural Revolution. He witnessed his family being rudely and violently treated. His works, however, do not display the trails of the violence; neither do they show a wound in the soul or the wrath of a victim.
Just look at his paintings that show colorful flowers, symbolizing hope, warmth, and many other positive views. Similar nuances can be found in his other series of works that displays water.
One of Fang Lijun"s paintings being displayed in the biennale shows a man (with the artist"s face) submerged or half-floating in bluish water.
"Water is a symbol of a fitful situation, as it gives a feeling of safety but is at the same time very dangerous. It"s to do with our experience in China that"s also unstable," says Fang.
His other painting is quite recent; he finished it last year. It is titled 2002.1.1. In the middle of his wide canvas, he has painted in a close-up a plump hand of a baby, reaching into the blue sky filled with flowers.
The painting soon elicits a hopeful feeling for the future among its audience. Does he believe that the current world is still full of hope? "I have my doubts about it, yet hope we must," answers Fang.
For Yue Minjun, a difficult childhood has provided him with strength. He describes this in some of the works that he shows during the night discussion. One of them portrays himself grinning widely like in a Pepsodent toothpaste advertisement, with the figure of Chairman Mao standing right behind him.
"I feel that he has been haunting me all my life; I was never free from him," he explains, eliciting laughter from the fellow artists, collectors, and gallery managers.
Some of his works show quite an intensive connection with the "outside world." One of his paintings show himself with an exposed skirt a la Marilyn Monroe. His red briefs are visible there. This surely is an odd view.
Some of his other works show similar situations. He has posed mimicking several classic works of famous painters including Picasso.
One of his paintings serves as a unique social documentary. There he is portrayed with wings, ready to take off. "At the time many Chinese were thinking to fly to the US," he says.
Fang Lijun (born in 1963) and Yue Minjun (born in 1962) represent the new face of China, with solid reputations in the international world. Their presence gives a certain weight to the CP Open Biennale.
They say they do not want to move away from China to gain bigger and
wider popularity and opportunity. "I can"t create anything in
a stable country where everything is established," says Yue.
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