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Yue Minjun: Hat Series – Armed Forces

March 29, 2009 Art, Contemporary 3 Comments

Going to auction on April 9th, 2009, Yue Minjun’s Hat Series – Armed Forces (oil on canvas,  170 x 140 cm) is my favorite lot (662) of Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art sale. Executed in 2005, it is estimated to sell between 3.5-5.5 million HKD. Like many, I am drawn to the smiling figure who is featured prominently in all of his work.


The ubiquitous laughter of Yin Minjun’s leering figures undermines any paradigm intended to make sense of modern life, and while his compositions can certainly be seen as travesties of an undemocratic, single-party society, there is something as well that appeals to all of us, no matter what culture we may come from. Yue’s allegorical appeal stems in part from the narrow spectrum of imagery he allows himself; again and again, we find him confronting public notions of the self and its discontents. His work conveys dissatisfaction, even in the most innocent settings, while his repeated use of a sharply public identity tends to yield to analysis of social mores in the life of contemporary Chinese people.

Thus a predilection for the ridiculous positions life places us in is basic to Yue’s sensibility. Is he laughing at society or at himself—or is he doing both at the same time? Despite the grinning face, there is a bleak sense of isolation we repeatedly face in Yue’s art. He may be having fun, but he is going nowhere, as the repetitions of his wide-mouthed laugh suggest. The Cynical Realism Yue subscribed to in the 1980s is transformed by a broadening sense of responsibility to his imagination

The current lot Hat Series—Armed Forces emerges an exceptional piece of late—a group of men clad in identical uniform each wears different headgear. Every man is thus assigned his own distinct role. “My interest in the hat was piqued at the time of the Olympic Games in Athens, when various hats were used to denote the ranking of the medal winners. They were all based around the shaped of an olive. It was a harmless idea, intended to promote the fact of the games being held in Greece, where the whole concept of the games originated. It was also rather amusing. It made me think about the origin of hats, and how the symbolism of “the hat” evolved. Why was it that this particular accessory became the sign of a job, a social position? Or stranger still, how a hat could signify nationality, or an ethnic group. Today most societies don’t require people to wear hats. Those we see most commonly are part of a uniform that goes with a job—construction worker, policeman, soldier, nurse. People who choose to wear hats today usually use them to make statements about their personalities, so the hat becomes an extension of the wearer’s image. No one chooses a hat lightly: it has to be right. Unless it goes with the job—then you have no choice. So the placing of various hats on the figures in this series of paintings is about highlighting the role of the hat in asserting and reinforcing social differentials, and my sense of the absurdity of the ideas that govern the sociopolitical protocol surrounding hats.

Link: Sotheby’s Lot 662

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. ayami says:

    freaks me out… why is it that their smiles get bigger and bigger throughout the year.s…

  2. Karen says:

    saw his stuff at MOMA SF last year. quite interesting.

  3. […] or performing acrobatics in outer space, or riding ostriches), and some, like Execution and his hat series, are meant to be read more seriously as social commentary or philosophical […]

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