Artwork Spotlight: Yue Minjun's 'Sea of the Brain' (1962)


‘Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” -Nietzsche


Contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun uses his own visage as the model for his vividly coloured, manically laughing figures. A reoccurring image across his works, the grinning figure represents part portrait, part parody and part social criticism. In what he terms, ‘pink humour’ the artist offers the viewer a gentler and ambiguous attitude towards political commentary as opposed to the severity of black humour.


‘Sea of the Brain’ (1962) is an oil painting depicting a portrait of Chairman Mao taking a dip in the head of Minjun’s classic pink-skinned, hyper-realistic figure framed against a calming and serene blue backdrop. Among Minjun’s work, the social commentary here is thinly veiled but remains ambiguous enough to escape detection. A possible interpretation of the image is a reference to Mao’s brainwashing under the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Minjun is a part of the ‘critical realism’ movement, a term critics coined to describe a number of Chinese artists in the 1990s that used satire to discuss the emotional trauma left behind from the Cultural Revolution, and the effects of the rapid modernisation. Here, Mao is literally swimming in the brain of a figure who’s expression appears tensely stretched, like his skin might tear if he exerted himself any further. It’s the kind of hysterical laughter you do in the face of immense trauma.


“In my work, laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness.. [but] sometimes you only have laughter as a revolutionary weapon to fight against cultural and human indifference.”

🎨 Yue Minjun, Sea of the Brain (1962), oil on canvas, 140cm x 120cm. @ Private Collector // Image courtesy of the artist.