Tiananmen Square: The man and the white lights will be painted or not?
June 3, 2009
Four years ago I requested that roughly a dozen Chinese copyist painters paint a copy of the image of the man standing in front of the tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest. I did this as part of my interest in copies and reproductions. I did this as preliminary research for a trip to the Dafen Painting Village, in Shenzhen (Summer 2006). And I did it to see if I could do it.
Of the dozen requests I sent, about six to eight 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. When I received the paintings I was struck by the earnestness of the work, and how ultimately bad it was. The badness is what makes them great. And the earnestness to "strike a deal" for a bulk order is viscerally present in these "sample paintings."
I have titled each image with a snippet of dialogue from the negotiations for each painting.
20 years have passed since the violent June 4 1989 government crack down on 20 year old college students occupying the square. Enough time for the protestors children to grow up. And these children have grown up without ever seeing that image. When I was in China the only exploration more fascinating than the old markets, new buildings, and tasty food was doing Google searches from behind the Great Firewall of China.
One thing I learned: this image did not exist.
Another thing I learned: If a scandal broke out in China, all webpages outside of China would be temporarily disabled. During my month there, two scandals broke out over regional politicians caught in corruptions scandals. 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 hour.
Just yesterday the New York Times published a small series of editorials about the anniversary. And just today 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.
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. But she had never seen this image. She had heard stories; stories from family friends whose children disappeared that day, 20 years ago tomorrow. But they simply kept quiet, and didn't ask any questions.
I send this out as a quiet memorial, and an attempt to reseed this image.