For almost 25 years, the soaring “Pillar of Shame” stood on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus to honor victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The school’s controversial decision to pull the statue down last December signaled a major blow to freedom of expression in the city – one of the few places on Chinese soil where memorials to Beijing’s bloody crackdown were still tolerated.
At the time, the artist behind the work, Jens Galschiøt, vowed that the statue’s symbolism would live on. And, sure enough, on Wednesday he unveiled a full-scale replica of the 8-meter-tall (26-foot) sculpture at the University of Oslo in Norway.
“The message is to show the world that we’re still talking about Hong Kong, we won’t forget Hong Kong and we won’t forget what China is doing in Hong Kong,” the Danish artist said over the phone shortly after the ceremony, which was attended by Norwegian parliamentarians, Hong Kong activists and the dissident Chinese artist Badiucao.
Coordinated by Amnesty International and the non-profit organization Hong Kong Committee in Norway, the new sculpture will be on display in the university’s garden for almost a month. A commemorative event is also being planned there on June 4 to mark 33 years since the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, where pro-democracy protests were violently crushed by armed Chinese troops.
In a statement provided to CNN, the University of Oslo’s rector, Svein Stølen, said the statue shared his school’s values of “student activism, freedom of expression, democracy and human rights.”
Featuring a mass of screaming faces and contorted bodies, the statue is one of several versions of the “Pillar of Shame” created by Galschiøt since 1996. The original was erected in Rome ahead of a Food and Agriculture Organization summit, to commemorate victims of hunger worldwide. Other versions of the work were installed in Mexico and Brazil to pay tribute to those killed in the Acteal and Eldorado dos Carajás massacres, respectively.
But the controversy surrounding HKU’s version means the work is now widely associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre – a topic that remains strictly censored in mainland China. Its removal last year came amid a broader clampdown in Hong Kong following the enactment of a national security law that criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
At the time, the school’s governing body said its decision to remove the work was “based on external legal advice and risk assessment.” The “Pillar of Shame” was one of several political statues removed by academic institutions in the semi-autonomous city that winter.
A symbol lives on
Galschiøt said he is still attempting to recover his “Pillar of Shame” from Hong Kong. The artist added that he is unsure what condition the statue is now in.
But the artwork still lives on in digital form: Using more than 900 photos of the work, activist group Lady Liberty Hong Kong created an open-source 3D version that can be downloaded and used to produce replicas. The digital model has also been turned into an augmented reality (AR) file, allowing users to erect the statue, virtually, anywhere in the world.
A smaller version of the sculpture was erected in Budapest, Hungary, earlier this year, and Galschiøt said he will soon unveil another in Prague, Czech Republic. He also hopes to install a bronze “Pillar of Shame” in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC.
“It’s not possible to kill a symbol,” the artist said. “You can only make it stronger.”
Galschiøt added that his latest statue also contains a message for Norway, which he accused of avoiding “the China discussion.” He said the country’s government had been “a little bit scared” of criticizing Beijing since a years-long freeze in diplomatic relations caused by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights lawyer Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
Director of Amnesty International Norway, John Peder Egenæs, also urged the country to be “more courageous and outspoken” towards China on matters of human rights and freedom of expression.
“In many ways, different Norwegian governments have shown a shameful cowardice towards China in recent years,” Egenæs said in a press release announcing the unveiling of Galschiøt’s new statue. “The (question) is whether the monument can remind Norwegian politicians of the courage needed when facing China.”