China: June 4, 1989 – Exhibition Review

Zhang Hongtu – The Last Banquet

While walking through the Asian American Arts Centre’s (“AAAC”) China: June 4, 1989 exhibition at the Whitebox Arts Center, it occurred to me that most of the visual memory of the student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and the Chinese government’s military crackdown on June 4 has been defined by news coverage.  Reporters and photographers were in the square through much of the seven-week long demonstration.  Millions around the world watched live coverage of that night’s chaos and violence.  The Goddess of Democracy and Tank Man became icons and are obligatory to any recounting of the student movement.

While the news images are unequivocally powerful on their own, they primarily serve to report events and do not convey outrage and grief as the works in China: June 4, 1989 do.

The works in the exhibition were the result of an open call for statements, poetry, and art by the AAAC issued the day after the crackdown.  Reflecting the universal shock, outrage, and grief, over 300 artists from numerous countries including Argentina, Canada, Sweden, Italy, France, Greece, Japan, Korea, China, and the United States contributed works in the coming months.  The AAAC canceled its upcoming season and launched a year-long exhibition to continue the memory of Tiananmen.   Over the years, China: June 4, 1989 has been shown in various forms around the United States and in Hong Kong.

As presented at the Whitebox Arts Center, the exhibition features works by fifty artists including Vito Acconci, Grimanesa Amoros, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Betty Beaumont, Mel Chin, Agnes Denes, Leon Golub, Kunio Izuka, Byron Kim, Barbara Kruger, Anna Lascari, Bing Lee, Donald Lipski, Louis Lopez, Kenneth Noland, Lilliana Porter, Martin Wong, Qian Yang, and Zhang Hongtu.  The diversity of artists not only present eclectic styles but also varied perspectives.  Some refer directly to Tiananmen, and others are more abstract in their symbolism.

At the center of the downstairs gallery are doors vividly painted or sculpted with commentaries on the political situation, violence, and human rights.  Tied together to be freestanding, the panels firmly stand upright together in solidarity.  In the limited space of the gallery, the physical presence of the doors impose their raw emotion.

Around the periphery, commentary continues with a fascinating collection of works, many of which feel more expressive, being unobligated to the canvas of a door.  Vito Acconi’s China Doll Flag strikingly greets visitors with a man falling into the Chinese flag and being enveloped by it.  Martin Wong’s untitled painting reimagines a mournful Statue of Liberty constructed from bricks from the Great Wall of China.   Zhang Hongtu who says his work became more political after the Tiananmen crackdown offers The Last Banquet.  After June 4th by a Beijing artist named Deng is unsettling in its portrayal of a soldier taking children away from their mother while flashing a peace sign.  Most visceral and elaborate perhaps is Byron Kim’s The Very, Very Small Number of People which places an acupuncture figurine in a birdcage that is encircled by vials of his own blood.

While the number of works is part of the significance of the exhibition, it is also overwhelming.  In an interesting juxtaposition, the exhibition in Whitebox’s upstairs gallery showcases video works from young Chinese artists.

The works are very much products of the moment.  What is it mean to view the exhibition twenty-five years after its works were created?  Are the works still relevant?  Certainly, yes.  The Chinese Communist Party continues to suppress dissent and has erased June 4 from the Chinese national consciousness.  Curator Bob Lee says, “More than ever, the international community needs to recognize this global trauma for what it was and remains – a human spectacle of incalculable proportions, buried and awaiting resurrection…To resist enforced amnesia, expose the truth and bring justice…is to undo the basis for so much of the corruption that is flourishing today.”   

Though the Chinese government is rightfully targeted, the exhibition’s dark tone and almost singular focus on its actions draws attention away from the students themselves and the spirit of progressive thought and reform in China.  The casual viewer with a limited understanding of China might be led to believe that it is wholly a brutal place.  He or she wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.  But that is the paradox of China today.  It is now both more free and more oppressed than it was in 1989.  The Chinese Communist Party’s control is now both more tenuous and firmer than it was in 1989.  Tiananmen was a defining moment but does not define contemporary China.

Nevertheless, this historic exhibition is an invaluable part of the legacy of Tiananmen and the complicated discussion of political reform in China (even former student leaders are divided over the appropriate path to democracy).   At a time when covering Tiananmen anniversaries has become somewhat of a tradition with familiar news images and discussion of the political situation and human rights in China are routinely dismissed by the Chinese government or set aside in favor of trade agreements by countries who want to partner with China economically, these works are a refreshing uncompromising jolt.

China: June 4, 1989 continues through Tuesday, June 10 at the Whitebox Arts Center, 392 Broome Street.  The closing reception from 5 – 7 PM will include Human Rights for China’s documentary Portraits of Loss and the Quest for Justice.

Be sure to visit the permanent China: June 4, 1989 online exhibition page for more information about the exhibition’s history and a selected sample of the works.

For more about the exhibition and its works, check out

1992 interview with curator Bob Lee (updated with recent comments from Bob);

interview with Artist Mel Chin and curator Bob Lee;

interview with participating artists Zhang Hongtu and Zhao Gang; and

statements from participating artists John Duff, Anna Kuo, Edgar Heap of Birds, Jean-Loup Msika, Ian Laughlin, Agnes Denes, Lotus Do, Grimanesa Amorós, Dolly Unithan, and Zhang Hongtu.

Images: Andrew Shiue

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Leon Golub’s name in the caption of a photo.  Additional artists have been added to the partial list of artists exhibited.