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Creative Dissidents Commemorate 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre

by Hrag Vartanian on June 4, 2014

An image of "Tank Man" with the tanks replaced by ducks.

An image of “Tank Man,” with the tanks replaced by ducks, circulated on Chinese social media before it was censored. (via Shangaiist on Weibo)

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and many — including one of China’s most famous dissidents, the artist Ai Weiwei — are commemorating the occasion with personal protests.

A #64 hashtagged image on Instagram image by @meow_w (via @meow_w's Instagramfeed)

A #64 hashtagged image on Instagram image by @meow_w (via @meow_w on Instagram)

The massacre took place on June 4, 1989, when 200,000 Chinese troops, acting under martial law, were sent to squash seven-week-long student-led popular demonstrations in central Beijing. The result was the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. The event has been immortalized around the world through the stark image of “tank man,” which has come to represent individuals standing up to the military might of autocratic regimes. Ai Weiwei penned an op-ed for Bloomberg today on the occasion of the anniversary. In it he writes about China’s “forgetting” of history and the recent removal of his works from two exhibitions in China, including one in which “local officials had [his] name erased from the exhibition’s wall text and barred the artworks from being displayed.”

Ai Weiwei posts a photo of his much younger self wearing a "democracy" tshirt on Instagram. (via @aiww's Instragramfeed)

Ai Weiwei posted a photo of his much younger self wearing a “democracy” T-shirt on Instagram. (via @aiww on Instragram)

In the second incident, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing consciously omitted Ai’s name from a press release to avoid making waves. Ai told UCCA director Philip Tinari during a meeting that he was ruining himself with “this Chineseness.”

Instagram user @crazdiamond displays what can be read as a coded commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre at the infamous site. (via @crazdiamond's Instagram)

An Instagram user displays what can be read as a coded commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre at the infamous site. (via @crazdiamond‘s Instagram)

The topic of Tiananmen is one of China’s most charged taboos; earlier this year lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was arrested for commemorating the event, while Singaporean artist Lee Wen was found beaten in a restroom at an Art Basel Hong Kong–affiliated symposium after mentioning Chen Guang, a Tiananmen Square soldier who later became an artist. The topic is regularly scrubbed from Chinese social media, so those who commemorate it are forced to turn to more covert and coded means (and memes) to communicate their message. Social media, as Hyperallergic contributor An Xiao wrote back in 2011, is used as a form of “street art” by users who share photos and memes to evade censors.

@sweetiejason91 posts a Tiananmen Square-related image. (via @sweetiejason91's Instagramfeed)

@sweetiejason91 posted a Tiananmen Square-related image (via @sweetiejason91 on Instagram)

Today, one Instagram user, @crazdiamond, held up playing cards in Tiananmen Square with the date of the massacre and a reference to the common military weapon the AK-47 gun. Ai Weiwei posted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt with the word “democracy” clearly emblazoned on it. Others posted images on Instagram under identifiable hashtags including #0604 and #64; one image of rubber ducks replacing the tanks in the infamous “tank man” photo went viral on Weibo, before Chinese censors pulled it down. And American company LinkedIn was embroiled in allegations of censorship outside mainland China, with some Hong Kong users reportedly receiving notices that their Tiananmen-related posts on the site had been blocked, according to Quartz. (A LinkedIn spokesperson stated that no accounts outside of mainland China were affected, and the messages were sent in error.)

The BBC noted today in a report on the social media commemorations that Chinese authorities are stricter than ever:

One user, who did not wish to be identified, told the BBC that the candle emoticon was missing from the usual emoticons available on Sina Weibo, and the word “candle” was blocked. “I saw more content on 4 June last year – but there seems to be much less online this year,” he said.

You may also be interested to know that George Washington University’s National Security Archive has released declassified documents related to Tiananmen Square online.

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  • Tui McFarland

    The image of Tank Man is not just rubber ducks, but it’s Florentijn Hofman’s “Rubber Duck”, one of which deflated in Hong Kong in May last year. The image is from last year’s anniversary and was also censored at the time.

    http://goo.gl/HcKhs6

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Thanks for clarifying that. And I remember we covered the controversy over the fact that it had many unsanctioned reproductions, which is also perhaps referenced here: http://hyperallergic.com/75107/how-pop-art-got-ripped-off/

      • Tui McFarland

        Hahahahaaaa! Ooooooh, layers!

      • Den Hickey

        Maybe they could just call it artistic license like Richard Prince.. but then, I doubt they have blue chip galleries to support them.

  • Den Hickey

    Given that the man in the picture is VERY likely killed within minutes to days after that video was shot, the rubber duck makeover seems a bit ghoulish.

  • Roz Dimon

    There was a massive response to Tiananmen in NYC on July 4, 1989 (America’s day of Independence) by The Asian American Arts Center in Chinatown who combined forces with Blum Hellman Gallery in NYC to commemorate that young brave soul who stood in front of the tanks (and everyone else past, present, future who has stood with him in the fight for human rights and freedom to breathe). It’s the most memorable July 4th I can recall, as my husband and a friend assisted in the creation of a digital artwork on a door that we then contributed to the “CHINA DOOR” project – this toured around the world with 99 other doors as art; serving to keep hearts and minds open and reminded of this important event.

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