Yuan Yuan and the Honest Desire for Disney World

Yuan Yuan spent her childhood seeking out amusement parks that were not really very amusing at all. Call it prescience, a child born in the mid-1980s looking for the sort of escape that China could not yet offer on the material terms she had in mind. ¡°I remember,¡± she says, ¡°how you¡¯d go looking for a different world, but all you got was an older woman at the controls a single ride.¡± She would return home, to the PLA movie studio compound on Beijing¡¯s southwestern periphery where her army-officer father was employed as a military cultural worker, disappointed. This notion of a complete simulacrum, a world in which everything is just as it should be, became a childhood fantasy, then later an adult ideal. It drives her most recent group of paintings.

Her desire is perhaps most evident in the few larger works on view here. In these horizontal canvases, instantly recognizable signifiers like Micky and Minnie Mouse balloons root a composition that quickly spreads into near abstract fringes. The viewer is left with an indefinite sense of how the artist sees herself in relation to these motifs. The balloons and the manufactured happiness they so effortlessly represent come to seem a vortex into which meaning and narrative could disappear at any moment. These several works are like signposts, establishing a visual and psychological tenor for the other pieces on view.

Before she had even graduated from the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Yuan Yuan gained the notice of her peers and professors with a group of paintings based¡ªin subject matter, technique, and size¡ªon Polaroid photographs of her female classmates. Mostly titled with the overtly cute (often repeated-character) names of the young women they depicted, these paintings were striking for their acuity, perhaps unknowing, in pinpointing the aesthetic conventions of an emerging photographic genre known as zipai. Popularized by the emergence of networks for transmission and appreciation of amateur digital images online, zipai denotes a photographic self-portrait but connotes a coy, flamboyantly girlish stance toward the (self-held) lens. The dominant aesthetic principle is kawayi, a phonetic transcription of the Japanese borrowing of the English word ¡°cute.¡± Yuan Yuan¡¯s earlier portraiture attains the depth and distance¡ªalbeit one based on an intense familiarity and appreciation¡ªfrom this aesthetic necessary to outline its basic tenets. (This is in one sense an extremely traditional stance, the same sort of relation representational painters have sought toward their milieu throughout the modern era.) And yet in those first works, it was already evident that this was a painter capable of visual reflection upon a set of social conventions other young artists often failed to realize existed.

The small paintings in this show, mounted in specially designed and produced porcelain frames from the ceramic capital of Jingdezhen, push these earlier explorations a step further. Instead of merely transcribing headshots, Yuan Yuan has constructed entire scenarios, bringing her sitters into environments of her choosing and photographing them as if they live in the perfect world of her childhood dreams. Everything about these images is explicitly in keeping with the current moment, starting with the key protagonist, a student several classes below the artist at the Central Academy, locally famous for the self-styled fashion photographs she would post on the school¡¯s network. Yuan Yuan came to know her first as an online persona, and second as a real person. In these paintings, Yuan Yuan takes the constructed fantasy which her sitter initiated a step further, traveling with her to an upscale suburban development and an outlet mall on Beijing¡¯s northern fringes.

The sitters¡¯ poses in these hazy, pastel portraits evoke the ¡°DIY¡± feel of online photography, while the environments into which they are cast hearken back to an American discourse of nostalgia for the imagined order of post-War suburbia. Outside observers often look with amused condescension on the American-style ¡°villa compounds¡± of Chinese suburbia, voicing skepticism toward the project of nuclear-family-driven, high-carbon consumerist utopianism which they represent¡ªa project that has, at least theoretically, been rebuffed in the West. What Yuan Yuan gets is the pathos of these places, the subjectivity of the sort of young (Chinese) woman who might have grown up inside one of them, and, by extension, the aesthetic and spiritual realm to which they lay claim. In a society where upward mobility is pandemic and a coherent moral framework absent, spaces like these can say quite a lot about underlying and rarely voiced ideals. This combination of innocence, savvy, and directness in addressing such spaces and figures is rarely seen among young artists today; it can be deeply jarring, as what appears on first glance to be uncritical mimesis emerges on a second or third viewing as sharply honed critique.

Yuan Yuan¡¯s work is the latest in a long string of responses to the question of how to refit the socialist realist painting infrastructure that was built up in China after 1949 to more contemporary ends. Fittingly, her mentor is Yu Hong, a key member of the ¡°New Students Generation¡± that emerged in the eponymous landmark exhibition of 1990, showing a way forward for a state system that had found itself in crisis. Yu and her fellow travelers saw salvation in a turn from the grand narratives of political tableaux to the minutiae of everyday life and the dramas of the characters who populated their own lives. Her later work became intimately connected first with her daughter¡¯s coming of age, and then with the social roles allotted to women at all levels of contemporary Chinese society.

Last May, just after the Hong Kong Art Fair, Yuan Yuan and some friends made the trip to Hong Kong Disney. Situated on an outlying island not far from the airport, the park attracts parents and toddlers from around China, now able to enjoy the sort of innocent leisure that she could glimpse, but not quite possess, as a small child. For once, she found herself in the sort of thorough simulacrum she had always dreamed of entering. She went back to her Beijing studio and started work on these paintings.

Philip Tinari

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