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岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 (Yue MinJun's Execution and the Joker's grin)  

2013-06-15 23:15:31|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(1)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之一》 June 13, 2013

岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 - suman - Suman Gupta 看画随笔

岳敏君 《处决》(1995)     Yue Minjun  Execution (1995)




Yue MinJun's Execution and the Joker's grin
岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑
Small notes on Chinese Art(1)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之一》  June 13, 2013

 

In paintings of execution by firing squad it isn't so much the killing as the overkill that is foregrounded.  Yue Minjun's painting is clearly referenced to Manet's The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-9) by the disposition of the executioners' figures.  That reference nudges towards others: backwards from Manet's paintings to Goya's The Third of May 1808 in Madrid (1814), and from there, at least to my mind, to numerous images of St Sebastian before a squad of archers, particularly Juan van der Hamen's (1620s) Martyrdom of St Sebastian.  These paintings are designed – deliberately arranged – to sharpen the polarized confrontation between vulnerable individuals (unarmed, often naked, sometimes blindfolded, tied-up, frightened or resigned) and regimented collective (ordered, uniformed, synchronised, armed to the teeth, resolute), between people and the military machine.  Those facing the squad will not merely die; the very integrity of their bodies will be riddled.  These paintings essentialize a stark polarity in social relations: of strength and weakness, of collectives and individuals, of a monopoly on force and ultimate dispossession.  In every case the polarity is evoked with distinctive political nuances.  St Sebastian's martyrdom paradoxically overcomes physical force, the power of faith counters temporal power; Goya's soldiers are a crushing force that condemns those who suffer invasion and warfare, their bodies are invaded; Manet's firing squad and condemned men seem comparatively casual, as if death-dealing is a passing occurrence amidst the flow of history and regime changes.

But Yue Minjun's paintings recruit these allusions only to deliberately erase their import.  Here both executioners and condemned seem ordered and regimented, confronting each other in similarly replicative postures.  Here the bare bodies are merely posed against the informal cotton-thin clothing of the executioners, summery and playful on both sides (is that a caricature of death with a musical note on the t-shirt?).  And, of course, they all have the same grinning face.  The condemned seem to be suffering nothing more than a tickling.  We know that these bare bodies will not be torn apart, and those shooting them have no killing power in their invisible rifles.  The stark polarity of an essential social relation is referred only to be neutralized, and with that the political possibilities arising from that relation become void.  Social relation and political import are nullified into play or parody.

Everyone knows that the grinning face is the artist's, his signature motif, and it becomes everyone's face in his paintings from 1989.  Yue Minjun picked up the idea from another artist – but that is irrelevant here.  More to the point, every time Yue Minjun paints his grinning face he is looking at a mirror of sorts.  This is a mirror of artifice and dissociated self-regarding.  I can imagine that.  Perhaps the artist stood before a mirror with lamp light focused on his face some day in 1989, like an actor at a make-up table.  The light has to be artificial; the light in his paintings is luridly artificial.  The grinning face he saw in the mirror was his and yet not his.  It was a mask.  Everyone wears a similar mask, he might have thought, and when they see themselves in a mirror they suffer from both a sense of recognition and of alienation – that is I, and yet is that all that is I?  If everyone wears a mask as I do then there is something ephemeral and uncertain about everything that I see.  If I depict everyone as wearing my mask then that ephemeral quality of perception subsumes the world.  Social significance is emptied into the impenetrable void behind my mask, and the social is rendered no more penetrable than the skin-deep surface of my mask.

1989 was a year of momentous confrontations between peoples and political states.  In 1989, as it happened, Yue Minjun started painting his grinning face as everyone's face.  On a trivial note, in 1989 I watched the film Batman, directed by Tim Burton and starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker.  Yue Minjun's Execution doesn't resonate with the memory of those 1989 confrontations.  It might be expected to, but it doesn't.  Manet's or Goya's paintings of firing squads do, but Yue's painting empties out the social relation and the political significance that underpinned those paintings — and underpinned those confrontations. In my mind, Yue's painting resonates with the film Batman.

It is, of course, likely that Yue Minjun hadn't watched Batman before he painted Execution in 1995.  Hollywood films were released in mainland China unevenly before 1995, the year in which the government allowed for the importation of ten foreign — predominantly Hollywood – films for commercial release.  But that is irrelevant here.  I look at Execution and think: this is an image from a world in which Nicholson's/Burton's Joker won.  In the film, the Joker set about perpetuating and commodifying his grin, taking over the mass media so that his grin became ubiquitous, making his grin universal by carnivalesque death-dealing.  The Joker threw money around so that everyone grinned, and went to high art museums to deface masterpieces by Degas, Rembrandt, Renoir, and others.  He spared Francis Bacon's Figure with Meat (1954) though, one of the series that refers to Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) – “I kinda like this one, Bob.  Leave it.”  Bacon's painting seemed to take away the substance behind the mask of the Pope's visage (made translucent and ghostly), drawing something from Velazquez's perception while doing violence to Velazquez's figure.  The Joker appreciated that, it seemed at one with his enterprise.  If the Joker had succeeded in wiping out Batman and the careworn order of Gotham City, only the forced grin of the Joker's hapless clones would have been left behind, and only his macabre playfulness would remain — the necessity for brutal death-dealing would disappear.  The shadow of death-dealing would remain only as parody or play.  The art that remained would also be devoid of social relations and political nuances; art would be merely parody or play.  And the Joker's victory was, in the film, always an open possibility; after all, the line between super-vigilante and super-villain is thin in Batman, both masked and both working outside the process of law, alter egos of each other.

In the mind of Hollywood's popular culture Jack Nicholson's Joker did win, and Michael Keaton's insipid Batman paled into indifference.  The Joker's protean career continued to flourish, in comics, films, TV series, computer games, etc.  A couple of decades later when he appeared in the comic book Superman: Emperor Joker (2000) he ate up the entire population of China.

If those who bought Yue Minjun's Execution did so because they saw it as a resonant and daring statement about the 1989 confrontations, they must have been looking at it with the Joker's eyes.  They found in it what their unthinking Joker gaze wanted to see.  And they were all set to eat up contemporary Chinese Art.




岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 (Yue MinJuns Execution and the Jokers grin) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian(1868-9)
岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 (Yue MinJuns Execution and the Jokers grin) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
GoyaThe Third of May 1808 in Madrid(1814)

岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 (Yue MinJuns Execution and the Jokers grin) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
van der Hamen: Martyrdom of St Sebastian(1620)

岳敏君的《处决》与《蝙蝠侠》的笑丑 (Yue MinJuns Execution and the Jokers grin) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Francis Bacon: Figure with Meat(1954)
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