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The Art of Tiananmen

September 9, 2009

Last Sunday evening, tanks rolled through the streets of Beijing.

In a dress rehearsal for the upcoming military parade to celebrate both the  October 1 National Day Holiday and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC,  a number of tanks rolled down Dawang Lu toward Changan Avenue and Tiananmen Square.

Personally, I thought the blue tanks (first seen at 2:28) added a nice splash of welcome color. They will go beautifully with the uniforms worn by some of the female soldiers who will also be marching in the parade.

Female soldiers at National Day dress rehearsal

It is a sad fact that the words “tanks” and “Beijing” in the same sentence conjure up images of Tiananmen and 1989. As one of the “Three T’s,” Tiananmen is one of the topics my students have been most curious about. After all, when they have seen it, it is nothing but a large empty space paved in concrete. If you haven’t been to the Square yourself, how about a virtual visit?

Tiananmen Square

An incredible amount of art and visual culture has been inspired by the 1989 events in the Square. But four works stand out above the rest. Two have become iconic references to what took place that day. The other two reflect the global fascination with those events and with Chinese contemporary art, particularly art that is perceived as political. I believe that these four are the images to know.

Jeff Widener, Tank Man, 1989.
At least four photos as well as video footage exist of the “Tank Man” standing in front of the four tanks rumbling down Changan Avenue. The sight of this single man actively preventing the tanks from entering the Square is the most widely-recognized image of what happened that day. It is so well known that it even appears in pop culture.

Anonymous Beijing students, Goddess of Democracy, 1989.
Despite its striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, this 10-meter (33-feet) high sculpture of foam and papier-mâché over a metal support was inspired by the Socialist realist work of Russian sculptor Vera Mukhina. Although Goddess only stood in the Square from May 30 to June 4, 1989, its legacy lives on in reproductions around the world. Perhaps most notably, a reproduction of Goddess was chosen to represent the 100 million people killed in the name of Communism for the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. that was dedicated in 2007.

Zhang Xiaogang, Tiananmen Square, c. 1993.
Selling for $2.32 million in 2006, this radically simplified depiction of Tiananmen Square set auction records at the time. Arguably China’s most famous contemporary artist, Zhang publicly states that there is no connection to the June 4 events in this painting. But because of Chinese policy against depicting political events in art, the associations the Square has acquired dramatically increase the price of any politically-related works.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995.
Selling for $5.9 million in 2007, Cynical Realist painter Yue Minjun uses his trademark grinning self-portrait to depict “only his feelings about the future rather than actual events from the past” in this work. What conjures up the specter of Tiananmen here are the yellow-roofed red walls of the Forbidden City and the invisible rifles implied by the postures of the men facing away from the viewer. However, Yue borrowed the composition from The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya and Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1867) by Edouard Manet.

Are there other works that you feel should be included in “the art of Tiananmen”? Please leave me your suggestions in the comments below.

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