How the Tiananmen Square Protests Forever Changed Chinese Contemporary Artists

Kelsey Ables
Jun 3, 2019 10:14PM

Guo Jian, Tiger Happy, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

In a 1991 video by artist Zhang Peili, what appears as an ordinary Chinese state news broadcast quickly descends into nonsense as a well-known anchor reads the definitions of the Mandarin word for water. The work, Water: Standard Version from the “Cihai” Dictionary, comments on the Chinese government’s erasure of the Tiananmen Square protests, a “washing away” of history.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military opened fire on student and civilian protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The students first took to Beijing’s streets on April 15, 1989, to protest corruption in Deng Xiaoping’s regime. They remained for six weeks, starting a hunger strike, and erecting a monument in the image of the Statue of Liberty. To this day, the official death toll has not been released and the June 4th incident remains absent from China’s tightly regulated news coverage, internet, and public discourse.

A monument in the image of the Statue of Liberty from Tiananmen Square, June 1989. Photo by Peter Charlesworth / LightRocket via Getty Images.


Despite the Chinese government’s persistent censorship and dogged efforts to edit the past and create collective amnesia, the Tiananmen Square massacre has left an indelible mark on contemporary art in China. Artists have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the history of 1989—sometimes at the price of their freedom. Those who reference the protests in their work find themselves subject to sudden arrests, punishments, and even forced vacations. Many artists who watched the protests from abroad, like Ai Weiwei and Huang Yong Ping, see the event as a turning point in their careers. And for those who were in the Square that night, the trauma is forever seared into their minds and practices.

In the years leading up to the student protests, China gained greater contact with the outer world, facilitating a co-mingling of ideas and translations of international texts; additionally, new music and art poured in. “Pre-’89, it was very experimental,” recalled Ethan Cohen, whose eponymous gallery specializes in contemporary Chinese art. “There was an idea of openness [and] there was a real flourishing of Chinese art.”

Khiang H. Hei, Untitled, 1989. Courtesy of Khiang H. Hei.

In 1989, mainland artists Huang Yong Ping, Gu Dexin, and Yang Jiechang made strides internationally, earning spots in the historic Paris exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre.” And in the same year, a provocative avant-garde show back home, “China/Avant-Garde”—also known as “No U-Turn”—featured hundreds of works of contemporary Chinese art, from performance to Abstract Expressionism. The show’s radical sentiment proved consequential: It came to a sudden end when Xiao Lu shot a bullet at her own artwork. Popularly known as “the first gunshots of Tiananmen Square,” Xiao’s act became a harbinger of things to come. “When I talk about this work, no matter what my original point is, I still think of the 1989 gunshots,” she said.

The short-lived spirit of the 1980s made the crackdown in Tiananmen Square all the more devastating. Artist Guo Jian was a student in Beijing at the time, and attended the protests. “The blood was so thick you could see footprints,” he recalled of the final night. “I realized people were dying around me, I saw the bullets hitting the ground. Suddenly, I just realized, this is a war [zone].” Reflecting on the time since, he added, “Every year, especially the anniversary time, you feel like you are the only one there thinking about this. Your frustration just builds up. You talk to yourself all the time. You say, ‘How come this happened? Why is no one talking about it?’”

Yue Minjun
Big Swans - Planche No. 16 (framed)
Eternity Gallery

After 1989, Guo channeled his frustration into art, poking fun at the depictions of “glorious” soldiers in Chinese propaganda paintings. Within the Cynical Realism movement, artists like Guo turned to satire and humor to cope with hopelessness and to comment on China’s rapid economic expansion and globalization. Yue Minjun, another cynical realist, famously depicts himself dramatically laughing. Other artists of the post-Tiananmen era have also leaned into the sheer absurdity of it all. In a work at the Guggenheim Museum’s 2017 “Art and China After 1989” exhibition, Wang Xingwei recreated a photo from the protests taken by Liu Heung Shing, substituting wounded protestors with penguins.

Guo Jian (in the black sweatshirt) at a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. Courtesy of the artist.

Some artists turned to the body as the only source of truth, when all other knowledge systems had collapsed; Guggenheim curator Alexandra Munroe calls this “visceral realism.”The body became integrated into visual art—such as Qiu Zhijie’s 1994 tattoo series—and in performance art—such as Zhang Huan’s famous piece 12 Square Meters (1994),where he covered himself with fish oil and honey, sat in a public toilet infested with flies, and then slowly submerged himself in a pond. “There was a turn to performance because the body was the only reality they could depend on,” said Munroe, who co-curated the Guggenheim’s “Art and China After 1989.”

Activist artist duo Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, known as the Gao Brothers, believe “the artist’s role is to restore and preserve historical memory.” And in this case, “the artist is not only a repeater in the narrative of the reconstruction of Tiananmen Square, but also a reflective critic.” The siblings’ involvement in the protest had lasting consequences. In 2000, their Utopia of Hugging, a piece that brought dozens of couples together to publicly embrace, was supposed to be performed at the Venice Biennale but was canceled after the Chinese government denied them passports. The Utopia of Hugging—dubbed a “raised finger to the prudish regime,” by critic Pia Camilla Copper in 2008—would have called into question China’s turn toward traditional values post-1989, on an international stage.

“In times of repression, art is a powerful alternative to open criticism,” Cohen noted. Today, that type of creative repression and censorship still exists. For Guo Jian, an artist who was exiled to Australia after making a diorama of Tiananmen Square in pork meat, dealing with the authorities only furthered his commitment to boundary-pushing art. “When those people came up to my studio to arrest me, I knew my power,” he explained, “otherwise they wouldn’t care.”

Stella Zhang, Sealed Memory, 2019. Courtesy of Chinese Culture Center.

This year, Stella Zhang, a multimedia artist based in California who was finishing up her final year at the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing during the protests, is looking back at the Tiananmen Square protests in her work for the first time. She asked friends who were also at the protests to contribute photos for a new piece, titled Sealed Memory (2019), that is on view in “Present Tense 2019: Task of Remembrance” at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center. She could tell that the request made them nervous. Two friends agreed, but only on the condition that she would download the photos, immediately delete the file, and not allow the images to be visible in the final work. The Chinese government, Zhang noted, can still punish people who were involved in the protests.

In Sealed Memory, the photographs of Tiananmen are placed in a plastic bag and obscured from view. The overarching sentiment is one of poignant nostalgia and emotional baggage. “The idea is a memory that is there, but has to be hidden,” Zhang said. Perhaps, these sealed, hidden photographs are as close to the memory of Tiananmen Square as one can get.

Kelsey Ables