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In memory of the man in front of the tanks (Tiananmen 20 years later)
Tiananmen Square: Do you exclusively paint Thomas Kinkade paintings?
June 3, 2009
Four years ago, in preparation for a research visit to Shenzhen’s Dafen Painting Village, I requested that roughly a dozen Chinese painters paint a copy of the image of the man standing in front of the tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest on June 4, 1989. I did this partly out an interest in copies and reproductions and partly just to see if I could do it: the image is famous worldwide, but I have since learned it is virtually unknown under Chinese national censorship.
Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it.
Of the dozen requests I sent, most were returned with a price and the universal salutation “it is a pleasure to do business with you.” A few painters suggested I just leave the man and the lamp post out, often for unclear reasons: political or aesthetic? One person outright declared that he could not paint the image. I have titled each image with a snippet of dialogue from the negotiations for each painting.
Tiananmen Square: The man and the white lights will be painted or not?
Twenty years have passed since that violent government crack down on the twenty-something college students occupying the public square in pro-democracy protest. Enough time for the protestors’ children to grow up without ever seeing this famous image that was eradicated by the media. It lies cloaked lies cloaked in Google searches, behind the Great Firewall of China.
Tiananmen Square: our art products will give you total satisfation
This famous image did not exist. This was one manifestation of China’s pattern of Internet censorship. Another pattern was that if a scandals breaks out in China, all webpages outside of China are temporarily disabled. During my month there, two regional politicians were caught in corruptions investigations. One of them was sentenced to death, and the other killed himself. The official reports glossed over the details, and focused on the new appointee. The New York Times, on the other hand, did an in-depth analysis, which I happened to read, as I was up at a strange jet-lagged hour. It was gone the next day.
Tiananmen Square: composition without lights
Just yesterday the New York Times published a small series of editorials about the anniversary. And just now they are reporting on extensive shutdowns of most major communications platforms, from the NYTimes.com to Twitter. Ironically, that article will not make it through the firewall either.
Tiananmen Square: kindly please follow instructions for online payment
My translator & fixer that helped me get access to the painting factories said she had never seen this image. She was a very successful college-educated journalist, who was leaving China to work in Canada. She was a worldly person. She had heard stories but she refused to believe them; stories from family friends whose children disappeared that day, 20 years ago tomorrow.
Tiananmen Square: Chinese people forgot the history
I send images of these paintings out now as a quiet memorial, and an attempt to reseed this image of strength in the face of threats to humanity, tyranny, and the freedom of information