The Power of Images
Notes on Yan Pei-Ming’s Work
Yan Pei-Ming lends a new, intense presence to images of Mao, Bruce Lee, or the Pope that are reproduced thousandfold in the media; his work is a brilliant blend of eastern and western cultural influences. The Deutsche Bank Collection owns a series of the artist’s works on paper. Hou Hanru, advisor to Deutsche Bank’s art department as a member of an international committee of experts, has just curated a one-person show with Yan Pei-Ming at the San Francisco Art Institute. He explains to ArtMag why Ming’s work is becoming more and more relevant.
||It’s the kind of image we’ve seen countless times on TV or in the newspapers. We know it all too well from news coverage of war and humanitarian catastrophe: a starving child from a Third-World country staring at us from vacant eyes. In spite the horror it conveys, it’s an image that has almost become a stereotype. In Sudanese Child (2006), a watercolor from a series of children’s portraits in the Deutsche Bank Collection, Yan Pei-Ming succeeds in giving the image back its urgency—through a form of painting that is as analytical as it is powerful in expression.
Ming, as the art world and the popular press prefer to call him, is one of the most important figures in contemporary art. He has been focusing his extraordinary energy and imagination on creating large-scale, monochrome paintings, mostly portraits. His works are the vivid result of the passionate, dynamic, and powerful gestures with which he "attacks" the canvas—without lacking in conceptual depth. Ming was born in 1960 in Shanghai. His youth took place during the terror-ridden Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was followed by a period of opening and reform. Ming resettled in France in 1981, where he built up his artistic career over the following two decades. His biography is marked by radical and drastic changes that few can imagine. He was not the only one to go through this complex experience, of course; it stands for an entire generation that has experienced and survived the dramatic changes global geopolitics have undergone since the end of the Cold War. But this generation has also significantly contributed to the reshaping of the globalization process.
Struggle, both physical and spiritual, is always central to his creative activities. His paintings are literally the results of intense actions rather than frozen structures of colors and forms. They are in constant agitation, with large and fast strokes conquering the moving ground, often of immense dimensions. However, they are by no means simply expressionistic, extravagant, and self-indulgent manifestations. Instead, they are always highly "economical" and efficient—black and white, occasionally red and white, are the only colors that he employs in creating a universe beyond the "reality" of real color. He constructs his own realm of existence, navigating between memory and humanist concerns. Naturally, with his own particular history, iconic images of historical figures that have exerted profound influences on him and his contemporaries such as Mao Zedong, the Pope, etc. are regularly depicted in his paintings. They are not only images that have marked his memory of public spaces dominated by the propaganda of Maoism and other ideologies; they are also key elements constituting his intimate and personal memory and imagination. This is why Mao’s portraits are often produced and presented side by side with the images of Ming’s own father, his friends, and other, imaginary figures.
However, Ming’s portrait paintings are far from any kind of celebration or worship of those personalities. On the contrary, they are provocative, critical, and even subversive. The personalities are always presented in a kind of uncertain setting with "morally problematic" titles, such as, in reference to his own father, "the most respectful man," "the most hateful man," etc. In addition, they are often "politically incorrect": in the 1990s, he produced large series of portraits of people from the bottom of society such as prisoners, prostitutes, and homeless children, etc. in a peculiarly celebratory fashion. A couple of years ago, a series of public debates over the morality of presenting the portraits of certain criminals and politicians in public were held in France on the occasion of the presentation of Ming’s paintings in the exhibition Force de l’Art, an event organized by the government. Ming’s most spectacular "provocative act" is doubtlessly his new project Les Funérailles de Mona Lisa in the Louvres (2009). In the hall right behind the Mona Lisa, the world-famous iconic painting that has been largely considered to be the summit of beauty and the main attraction of the most visited museum in the world, Ming installed a series of huge canvases consisting of a replica of the Mona Lisa in the center and portraits of Ming’s father and the artist himself in a state of death. The paintings—intense, disturbing, yet mysterious—create an absolutely sublime experience for the public, who are impressed and even shocked after appreciating the original Mona Lisa: is the artist seeking elevation to the rank of the greatest in history? Or is he simply suggesting an ultimate burial of the ideal of beauty itself?
Indeed, Ming’s questioning of the ideal of beauty is deeply related to the question of the fate of humanity, namely the question of how working with images can deeply affect how we perceive and understand life and death, reality and drama, joy and pain, etc. Over the last several years, he has extended his research and representation in a new direction involving a direct engagement with social and geopolitical conflicts and their consequences. Portraits of children from the Third World suffering under the effects of war, starvation, poverty, and other disasters, for instance his paper work Sudanese Child (2006) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, are shown side by side with those of the Secretaries General of the UN, as well as soldiers involved in the Iraq War. Facing the current crisis and political change, he has come up with a new project conceived for his exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute (March – June 2009). Heroic figures such as Barack Obama and American solders are lined up side by side with US dollar banknotes and scandalous figures like Bernard Madoff, while a series of red images of newborn babies form a particular focus.
Ming’s artistic work, which consists mainly of paintings, never excludes the necessity of experimentation and change. Over the last few years, he has experimented with new strategies to integrate his studio-produced paintings into public space. His work increasingly ventures beyond the conventional museum space and is installed in public spaces in the form of flags, posters, and so on in order to mobilize public opinion and social awareness. This provocation not only subverts the convention of artistic representation; more importantly, it challenges the common sense of values in public language and established socio-psychological structures, namely the very relationship between freedom of imagination, representation, and social conventions that are systematically conservative. Ming’s work is surely politically engaging. This renders it not only more exciting, but also increasingly relevant in our time of massive change.