Friday, May 21, 2010

Two weeks to go....

...until the 21st anniversary of the grimmest - and most important - event in China's modern history, the entry of the PLA into Beijing to bring a violent end to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

The Lego 'Tank Man' above was one of the first of a daily series of images of Tiananmen '89 that Stuart over at Found In China has been running this year as a three-week memorial countdown to June 4th. It might seem rather frivolous and irreverent to render that iconic confrontation with a children's toy, but as I noted around this time last year, I don't think we should be too stuffy about this sort of thing - humour serves its purposes, offers us new perspectives on the most terrible events, and provides a kind of cathartic safety-valve for emotions that threaten to become too painful, overwhelming. I'm sure Stuart will include in his series many more pictures of the terror and carnage that erupted in this city on the night of June 3rd 1989 and continued over the following days (in the comments to one of these posts he provided a link to this particularly grisly collection of photographs on the Democratic China Blog II [one of those resources that had long been inaccessible to me here, until I got myself a proper VPN at the end of last year]); we need one or two 'lighter' moments to recover our spirits after horrors like those.

I have long been pondering the idea of creating a provocative modern artwork drawing on the iconography of the 'Tank Man', a sort of guerilla performance piece - perhaps doing something with toy tanks down on Tiananmen Square; or staging a mass lookalike march, with dozens of folks donning white shirts and dark slacks and unruly black wigs, and carrying shopping bags. I would have dearly loved to see someone try to emulate the 'Tank Man' during last year's pompous militaristic parade down Chang'an Avenue for the country's 60th anniversary celebrations, stepping into the road to disrupt that hideous procession of armoured vehicles - but any attempt to carry out such a stunt would, I'm sure, have got the perpetrators swiftly despatched to the gulag, if not to a firing squad. I've also thought about instigating a portrait series of leading 'dissident' figures of today posing as the 'Tank Man' - I think Ai WeiWei would be up for it, but I'm not sure how many others would dare such a provocation, or have the status to protect them from dire retribution.

The idea I like best, and keep returning to - perhaps something that could be done in Photoshop, without having to risk a live 'event' on Chang'an Avenue or the Square - is that of a 'Tank Man' facing down a line of radio-controlled toy tanks. It suggests (I hope - without dishonouring the extraordinary bravery of the original 'Tank Man') the comparative impotence of the regime, and the potency of individual acts of defiance. But then I thought an even more apt message might be to depict not just a reversal of the scale of the 'Tank Man' incident (the intimidating hugeness of the tank rendered small and harmless) but of the numbers too:
a column of 'Tank Men' stretching away into the distance, facing a single tank.

Back in '89 it seemed impossible that one man could halt an entire column of tanks driving down the road, but this unassuming hero proved otherwise. Today it seems impossible that the outdated and discredited Communist Party can cling to power in this country using the threat of force against its own people, yet - alas - they continue to prove otherwise. Back then, one man had the courage to stand up to this brutal regime; today, a nation of more than one billion people is too apathetic or too fearful to do so. It really wouldn't take very much to start changing things here, to start the long overdue dismantling of the one-party state. The balance of power is on the Chinese people's side now, if they did but recognise it.

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