The exhibition offers a micro-writing of Chinese artist Chen Guang, a former soldier of PLA who experienced the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, who narrates in detail the past experience and an unusual memory. The whole exposition is composed of some 24 works divided in 8 themes: 'Soldier', 'Breakage', 'Site', ’ Souvenir’, 'Remains', 'Secrets', 'Exploration' and 'Wind', mixed with various art styles from Realism, Symbolism, Super-realism to Pop art, well allocated in relative theme to a different extent. The artist records his special experience by dissecting and reconstructing his past memory and later reflection.
Chen Guang’s life story is a rather unusual one for a contemporary Chinese artist; you could say there is something almost legendary about it. Growing up in a small town in Henan province, Chen loved painting and received a basic art education from middle school art classes. At that age, his study experiences were no different to the majority of Chinese artists, but because Chen yearned to leave home and make a new life for himself, he joined the army before he was even legally of age. In 1989, not long after he joined up, his unit was sent to take part in the suppression of the ‘June 4th’ pro-democracy demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square. Later, Chen was transferred to the PLA Art Academy, and went on to major in oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. After graduation he worked as a tutor to students who were preparing for the rigorous academy entrance exams, and at the same time began to practice performance art. By the end of the 1990s, Chen had made a name for himself as a performance artist in the Chinese art scene, and a few years into his career he made the crucial decision to start using his own emotional and sexual history as a mode of practice for his performance art. As a result of this, he has become one of the most controversial performance artists in China.
While Chen Guang’s later performance works aren’t terribly extreme in their exposure of intimate details and sexual behaviour, creating them has certainly made him an anomaly, and in China it takes courage to be an anomaly. In appearance, Chen is a well-mannered, good-looking young man, and to someone who knew nothing of his work or life experiences, he is unlikely to come across as a particularly courageous individual. However, in a recent series of paintings that deal with the events of June 4th 1989, Chen has again crossed into forbidden territory, and his artistic challenge to the taboo topics of contemporary Chinese society has been taken up a level. If he lived in a free and democratic society, Chen’s actions wouldn’t attract much attention, but in today’s China, most people find his behaviour shocking or disturbing. In a society where the expression of political views is sternly discouraged, only a lion-hearted artist will dare to make work that is overtly political. Chen Guang’s work shows us how strong a sense of fear has been instilled in our hearts through everyday oppression.
By taking a closer look at Chen Guang’s life experiences, we can trace the gradual process by which he has become a social anomaly. He began as a young man who dreamed of being an artist, a dream that his time in the army didn’t cause him to abandon. In completing his studies, he avoided becoming a victim of the art education system; indeed, the artistic route he has taken since graduation has been a thorough rebellion against that education system. He has chosen to make art that lays bare his own emotional and sexual experiences, but rather than turning him into a media star, this approach is likely to make his life more difficult. Although Chen Guang is an anomaly, he is by no means a social deviant, because he isn’t trying to come into conflict with society. Chen Guang’s actions clearly convey one point, which is that artists can take responsibility for their own freedom of creativity – provided their actions remain legal – and can freely create art according to their individual interests and desires. Contemporary art is of very dubious value if it cannot achieve this spiritual aim.
In this day and age, showing courage often means paying a considerable price, and Chen Guang has already attained a vantage point as far as courage is concerned. Painting often seems to have become merely another tool for seeking profit, but by using painting to reproduce images from his performance art, Chen makes the profit-seeking behaviour of painting become somewhat awkward. Chen Guang’s paintings display a high level of technique in their execution, as can be seen in ‘Race’ and other works. Performance art, by contrast, has been more severely demonised by the Chinese art establishment than any other art form. Chen Guang has merged the two forms, and the resulting works are sure to confound those who collect art as an investment. Because of this, Chen Guang’s paintings are also, to a certain extent, a challenge to the current system of art collection.
In the field of contemporary art, those who make the rules are the biggest winners, and only when this is the case for everybody will art truly reflect the free spirit of individuals. Chen Guang has worked hard to establish his own creative rules, in order that he might occupy a commanding position in contemporary art. By becoming an anomaly, he has at least ensured that the rules of the art game are no longer set in stone. Therefore, regardless of whether we regard his art works as a personal strategy for self-actualisation, as something done to shock or entertain the public, or as a marginalised mode of art, this does not affect the position that Chen Guang has already attained as an artist.
October 31st 2007 at Bailu Hotel, Xiamen
An Interview with Chen Guang: the Ruined Prospects in the Waves of History
Time: 5 p.m. July 13th 2008
Place: Tongzhou , Beijing
Interviewer: Shu Yang
Interviewee: Chen Guang
The experience of drawing in the army
Shu: Can you tell us your first experience of learning painting?
Chen: I first learnt painting in my hometown, a place called Yongcheng in Shangqiu, Henan province. I was about nine years old then, and at first I sketched geometry stuff. At that time my hometown was only a little county, and my teacher was from the county culture museum. Now it becomes a city. I don’t know whether my teacher graduated from art school or not.
Shu: What did he teach you?
Chen: Well, delineation and something like that. I learnt for two summer holidays with that teacher. At school, I spent much of my time playing and learnt little, and in my spare time I seldom sketched. I liked to draw some pictures of heroic figures, like Dong Cunrui and Huang Jiguang. After that two summer holidays I’ve been drawing alone, with no teachers. I had no interests in my classes. Only drawing attracts me.
Shu: Did you ever think about going to study in an art school at that time?
Chen: No I didn’t. At that time my life was all about drawing, skipping class, catching fish in the river and birds on the tree, climbing trees and something like that.
Shu: Then how did you come to this kind of formal art education?
Chen: The time I seriously thought about taking a formal art education was when I was in the army. I gradated from junior school and went to a senior in the year1988, but because of my poor grades, my family and I both had great pressure about whether I could get into a college or not. And because I had a very good impression on the green army camp and green uniform, and staying in my hometown drawing could bring me nothing, I finally decided to join the army. Fortunately, one of my relatives served in the army at that time, so I wrote him a letter to express my willing of joining the army. And this letter got me into the army.
Shu: How old were you at that time? And where did you serve the army?
Chen: I was about 16 years old and I was in the 65th army in Beijing. I was thinking of drawing in the army to show my talents at first. But after I was in I found the truth differed dramatically from imagination. The army was a place where your physical strength was strictly trained, and the first half year was all about physical training. Every night we had to run five kilometers, to climb the obstacles and mountains, to walk and to train in the wilderness. This kind of life spared me no time to draw, but I still managed to find time to draw some pictures.
Shu: How did you get through this?
Chen: I didn’t know how. But all my army fellows and officers knew that I could draw very alike. They asked me to draw many blackboard newspapers. It was very cold at Zhangbei, and every time I drew blackboard newspapers I had to wear gloves. I drew figures of the navy, the air force, and the ground force. And I also wrote some slogans, disciplines and regulations of the army.
Shu: How long have you been in the army?
Chen: It should have been a long time, but actually I only stayed in army for one and a half year. I left the army after the 1989 proclaim martial law in Beijing. At that time I projected myself as a soldier in the army, even though I didn’t do much except drawing posters for the publicity, helping to show films and taking photos. But sometimes I also have to do some training, to fulfill some tasks, including the tasks in1989 Beijing incident.
The experience in the proclaim martial law in Beijing, 1989
Shu: What did you actually do in the 1989 Beijing incident?
Chen: Mostly it was about martial law. I was forced to get in by the army in Zhang Jiakou.
Shu: Which month was it?
Chen: It was May. Around April 20th we had already known that something happened in Beijing, but the situation was not clear. I tried to get information about it through newspapers, like the People’s Daily and the PLA Post. At that time we were taking the annual spring training course of our army at a remote place in east Zhang Jiakou, and few days after we arrived we got the order to come back to our station as soon as possible. We then packed our things without sleep and were sent back by trucks. And the next morning we were assembled urgently, knowing that we were about to do some tasks in Beijing. At that time we had no idea about proclaim martial law, we only knew that there was an emergency in Beijing and we needed to go there and keep order there.
Shu: What was the situation after you got to Beijing?
Chen: After we came to Beijing we lived in a shooting camp in Mount Shijing, called Long Fu. We lived there for more than one week from the early may, and every day we read newspapers, trained and waited, observing what was happening outside. After the week, around May 20th, Beijing was in a mess. We got the order to proceed to Tian An Men Square to stabilize the situation. Our troop left Long Fu shooting camp and proceeded along Gucheng Street until we got the joint of Gucheng Street and Chang’an Street. We were blocked there by a group of students and citizens. They gave us speeches about what was happening in Beijing every day, and our troop was surrounded terribly by them, with no ways to move forward or get back. The whole troop stuck in Gucheng Street for three days.
Shu: Did you have anything to eat in the three days?
Chen: No. The army couldn’t offer us food, and some biscuit we brought with us was only enough for one meal. After that, all the water and food were sent to us by some students there, which were donated to the citizens and students by some units. They gave us bread and instant noodles to eat, clean water to drink. Also there were some restaurants that made noodles for us and put them on the street, waiting for us to eat in turn.
Shu: So some citizens and students did offer food to soldiers?
Chen: Yes, they did offer some food to us.
Shu: Were there any conflicts between the troop and the people?
Chen: No, not at that time. At first the students and the soldiers were alert to each other, and kept a distance to each other. The students kept telling us what was happening in Beijing, saying that Beijing was quite peaceful, and the students were just requiring democracy, freedom and anti-corruption. Many students stood on trucks and gave speeches to the soldiers about such stuff. And then the students brought some newspapers for us to read, some newspapers that were very common in local places but were different from what we often read in the army, like People’s Daily, the PLA Post and something like this. The students also brought some local posters and informal information to us. During those days the students and the soldiers gradually got along very well, no conflicts at all. The only demand of the students was that the soldiers shouldn’t go to Tian An Men, for there was peaceful and with nothing to worry about. They also organized a team called Feihu to keep order.
Shu: Can you accept what the students said?
Chen: Yes I can. I thought they told the truth, and many soldiers believed them as well. In the three days the students and the soldiers communicated peacefully with each other, or rather, a peaceful communication under antagonism. “You go no farther” was the only demand of the students and citizens. The officers in high levels worried about us very much, even though we thought we were having common interaction. They sent lots of helicopters suspending above the Gucheng Street and threw out many posters to the army trucks. When the students got the posters, they tore them off and never allowed soldiers to read them. At that time we were surrounded and had no place to go, so we sent someone to negotiate with the students’ organization in order to reach an agreement, in the event of having nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. Our officers required us that we must have our meals on our trucks, and if you wanted to do your business you had to bring another five guys together with you. We were subjected to terrible sunshine in the street at daytime and unbearable coldness at night. Some soldiers with less strong bodies were going to break down. The situation was that the whole street was covered with numerous green trucks, with students busy giving speeches around each truck. Under this circumstance, we finally decided to talk to the students and withdraw from Beijing. At that night we evacuated, and it struck me a lot. Almost every citizen came out from his flat and working place, and both sides of the Gucheng Streets were covered with people who were happy to say good-bye to us. They said that there was no problem with Beijing, and they would always like and support PLA, all we needed to do was to withdraw form Beijing. Some students even seemed to be reluctant to part with us; some shook hands with us, some applauded and some shouted for joy. That was a great night. After that we came back again to Longfu shooting camp, stayed there for another one week, training and learning and reading newspapers. After a week’s adjustment, on June the second, our army sent us casual clothes to wear, like white shirts. At that time, the subway stations which were closed because of the student demonstration opened again, and we soldiers wearing casual clothes took the subways and buses to enter into Tian An Men Square.
Shu: That was how you got to Tian An Men? When did you get there?
Chen: We set off on the morning of June the third, and we were required to arrive at Tian An Men Square in the afternoon, around three or four p.m..
Shu: Where did you stay at Tian An Men?
Chen: We stayed in the Great Hall of the People.
Shu: And you just waited there?
Chen: Yes. I was wearing casual clothes as well, but I didn’t take buses or subways because of my poor health and having loose bowels. My political instructor was concerned that I would get recognized during the way, so he made me to help send guns under guard. The guns were brand new, you opened the gun box and you found the guns all protected with oil. They were sent one by one to two big buses with local licenses, and filled all the space under the windows. Only one driver and I were there. I sat above the window with guns beneath me and only my head out, and if you looked outside you would think it was an empty bus. So we encountered no interception and drove directly into the back door of the Great Hall of the People.
Shu: Did you arrive at the night of June the third?
Chen: No, I was earlier. I arrived at two p.m., with the bus directly into the hall. And then I helped move the guns to the second and third floors of the hall. Some soldiers with casual clothes had arrived gradually. I still remember that soldiers from the 65th army had white towels on their left arms as a symbol, and soldiers from the 27th army had white towels on their right arms. Around four p.m., almost all the soldiers of the 65th army and the 27th army were in the hall, and officers began to check the number of soldiers from platoon to regiment. Some soldiers were absent; maybe they were recognized on half way. And some were hurt, but still managed to arrive in time.
The fierce fighting in both ends of the Chang’an Street
Shu: What did you witness at the night you began your mission?
Chen: I had no idea how serious the situation was in Beijing, and I was just confused by why the students had stopped us from getting into Beijing. And I thought it was easy, just wore casual clothes and got into Beijing and that would be OK. After I finished moving the guns, the soldiers were assembled in the hall. As soon as we changed back our clothes, we got a mission. We heard that a bus with guns and ammunition were stuck in Xidan, and some students and citizens robbed the bus, taking away the guns and ammunition. Our mission was to find the missing guns and ammunition. The students had got the news that we soldiers had arrived in Beijing at the time we got into the hall, so you could hear the increasing shouting of the students from the Tian An Men Square even in the hall. In the afternoon some students threw bricks and bottles and broke the windows of the hall, sort of crazy. In the evening the TV station broadcast the scene, saying that what the students did was illegal insurrection. At the time our army wanted to get out from the hall to fulfill our task, we were stuck and surrounded by trucks and buses at the west gate of the hall, which were arranged by the students and citizens. Sitting on the buses were raging students and citizens. It seemed that they had been waiting for us. Just like what we had experienced in May, we were stuck there and had no ways to go, just stayed there for a very long time. We had several conflicts with the students, and both side got someone wounded. The students kept on giving speeches, and we soldiers held each other’s arms and tried not to break up. Someone threw bricks and bottles from the parking ground of the Asian Games into the hall, and the bricks and bottles zoomed across the soldiers’ heads. Many soldiers were hurt, their faces bleeding. We pushed away the students and citizens in order to send back wounded fellows through a narrow way. This situation continued until around eight or nine p.m.. The students were still excited and tried to break into the hall, they knew the PLA would take charge of the Tian An Men Square. Around ten p.m., the students and the soldiers eventually reached an agreement that the students would move back and the soldiers would withdraw to the hall.
Shu: Did you clear the place until late at night? When did it begin?
Chen: Yes, we did it until early in the morning. We got an order that we soldiers had to move into Tian An Men Square at one o’clock in the morning. Around Beijing stationed many armies. The martial law proclaimed by the mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, was broadcasting continuously in Tian An Men Square.
Shu: Where did you begin the clearing?
Chen: We had no exact idea about clearing the place at that time. In the several hours before the clearing, we received countless orders of martial law. We repeatedly got out and got in, with no time to have a rest and just stood there waiting for the next order. Because of my poor health, and because a photographer was needed, my political instructor sent me with the only camera in the army to take photos. So I kept on walking across the first and second floor of the hall and taking photos. Most photos were about what the soldiers were doing in the hall. I also got some pictures of the excited students and citizens outside the hall. Around twelve p.m., the soldiers all walked out of the hall from the east gate, standing there in rows quite silently. Opposite us was Tian An Men Square. We were all waiting. I think it had already been reported by newspapers and other media. The government also gave their explanation.
Shu: Is that the truth you had seen?
Chen: I saw many truths. But I prefer to tell some details like how the soldiers lived in the Great Hall of the People and how the tents that the students lived in and their statue of liberty were pushed over by armored cars and burnt down. The students were in panic. It was a commotion, and they were all nervous. The soldiers were not the first one that entered into Tian An Men Square, it was the special force who were the first. The soldiers were all standing in rows at the east gate of the Great Hall of the People. It was antagonism, the army and the Beijing government sent someone to talk to the leaders of the student organization. Hou Dejian in Taiwan also persuaded the students through the radio again and again, saying that the students should quit, and there was no need to have more loss. The students were worried. They walked restlessly in the tents, just like ants on a pot. I was taking photos at that time and I did not shoot. I was carrying my gun on my back and the camera in my hand.
Shu: Did you soldiers get any order saying that you could shoot at that time?
Chen: Why don’t you ask some details? Like how did the soldiers get through? We were on the edge of death at that time!
Shu: This crisis has been passed for almost 20 years. Do you still think it was unfair to the soldiers?
Chen: It was just an experience. But I did think it was unfair at that time, at least I had nothing to eat and had to be on duty under terrible sunshine.
Shu: What were you doing when the clearing began?
Chen: I was just taking photos with the camera. At first I was in the hall, and then I got out and walked up and down on the stairs before the hall so that I could see clearer. At this time the students were in chaos and flustered. The special force then entered the Tian An Men Square to clear every tent on it, very close to the students. There were a great number of them; we had to stand very high to have a look. They might be the first troop which got close to students. At the same time Hou Dejian in Taiwan was persuading the students to give up. In the middle the electricity supply was cut off for about one hour. It was very dark that you couldn’t even see your own fingers. The soldiers were all standing on the stairs before the hall, waiting, and guns ready. I was still walking up and down with my camera. After one hour the lights were on, and we could see students walked out from their tents and headed to the Monument to the People’s Heroes, singing the Internationale. They stayed at the monument for a long time, about an hour and a half, and then they began to withdraw form the southeast corner. The special force continued clearing every tent on the square.
Shu: They cleared the tents to chase people out?
Chen: Yes. But they were far away from me.
Shu: Were there any conflicts between the students and the soldiers at that time?
Chen: There were no big conflicts. At least around the east gate of the hall where our army stood there were no big conflicts, because we were too far away from the students. Actually the special force was always the closest to the students. If there were big conflicts between the two sides, it would be when the students withdrew to the southeast corner of the square.
Shu: What did you see and what did you hear then?
Chen: There were gun shots everywhere, especially on the east and west ends of the Chang’an Street. They were fighting fiercely, as if the sky had caught fire. Many armored cars had also assembled on the square.
Shu: So someone shot on the square?
Chen: Soldiers around me were shooting to the sky and to the ground, there were gun shots everywhere.
Shu: What was the order? Just to shoot to the sky and to the ground?
Chen: No. the order was to shoot anyone who stops you. And the one who stops you would be responsible for his behaviors.
Shu: When did this clearing end?
Chen: It ended at about half past three in the morning. The tents were almost cleared. It rained at four o’clock, and you could see with the feeble light that the ground was covered with black dirty water. Things that hadn’t been burnt out yet piled up high like small hills. I walked around to take photos. I could see many things left in the ashes, mostly were students’ notebooks, bicycles, clothes, cameras and other daily things. And also some food donated to the students by some units.
Shu: Did you see any students beat the soldiers or the soldiers beat the students?
Chen: Yes I did.
Shu: The students beat the soldiers?
Chen: Yes. But not close to me, very far.
Shu: And there were also soldiers shooting at the students?
Chen: I didn’t see soldiers shooting at students, but I knew there was such kind of conflicts far away from me. I could see the glimmering sticks in the policemen’s hands that were fighting with the students. There were also soldiers around the policemen, but I was not sure whether they shot at the students or not.
Shu: It was hard to see clearly in such a disorder, wasn’t it?
Chen: Yes, it was very difficult to make judgments. I only knew that soldiers around me were just shooting to the sky and to the ground. We were far from the students, so there was no need for us to have conflicts with them or shoot at them.
Shu: How did you feel towards the students as a soldier?
Chen: I thought it happened too fast, and it shouldn’t end up like this.
Shu: What about your feeling now? You know it was twenty years ago.
Chen: Well, it’s really a complicated feeling, for I experienced it personally. I think many soldiers feel the same thing just like me. We didn’t know what we should do at that time and we had no clear purposes. Even though it was allowed to shoot at people who stopped you, when conflicts arouse we often acted instinctively. Someone claimed that he saw soldiers shooting at the crowds, which I think is too horrible. It’s lucky that I didn’t see the scene of any soldier shooting at the students.
Shu: Have you ever thought about any other ways to avoid the conflicts under that circumstance?
Chen: I think if we had taken proper measures and communicated more, the conflicts could be averted.
Art is complex information connected with human beings
Shu: What did you do after this incident?
Chen: I left the army and never came back. I went to the art school of the army.
Shu: When did you go to art school?
Chen: The time I made up my mind to go to art school was in the spring of 1989, when I accidentally came across the Modern Art Exhibition held by the Art Gallery of China. At that time the incident hadn’t happen. On my way home I transferred a car in Beijing, that was when the exhibition was held. Before I went to the exhibition, a gun-shot crime happened there, policemen were busy checking the gallery. So I went in without a ticket. The first and second floor of the gallery was a mess, and many artists were standing there discussing art and social problems. It gave me an impression that artists were all passionate and responsible. Maybe I didn’t know much about art and artists, but that was just the reason that led me to art and to go to study in art school.
Shu: You’ve begun painting pictures again in recent years. What’s the reason for that?
Chen: In my early times I was interested in human bodies and was exploring my own way. This kind of interest has already passed. Now I come back to myself to find my past life experience. I miss the past time, just like what I have expressed in the painting “My Emotion and My Sex”. A lot of my paintings came out in such kind of emotion. I complete my past experience especially my experience on June the fourth in 1989 through painting, and most of my paintings are about my army fellows.
Shu: Does it mean that your experience in 1989 was really unforgettable?
Shu: Have you seen anything new through your new paintings, something different from what you had seen in the past?
Chen: The feeling is contradictable. Before I start painting I always think of it clearly, that I do miss that period of life, or rather, that period of history. In the past I was a soldier, and after that I have known more about the society. There are many kinds of comments and critics and definitions on that period of history. The official, the educated and the ordinary, they all have different ideas toward that incident. They are standing in different standpoints. This gives me the idea of expressing my own feelings through paintings.
Shu: Do you want to restore your feeling at that time?
Chen: It’s not restoring. Restoring was for the current situation especially the current commercial trend. I am talking about what an artist has thought about the whole society. That’s why I don’t have the mood to paint them in the past, but start to paint in such a prosperous society now.
Shu: Can you explain that?
Chen: Well, I think under a commercial trend, artists concentrate less and less on controversial topics in the society. When the commercial idea is eroding people’s mind, it pushes people to care material things more. But I am dull towards this. I can’t feel them.
Shu: Do you still think what happened in June, 1989 was a commotion?
Chen: It should be. It depends on how you explain it. The conflicts claimed many people’s lives; it is the token of many social problems. It leads us to think about what is the difference between individuals’ interest and the country’s interest and does this difference still exist.
Shu: Do you have an answer now?
Chen: I think I need more people to answer and to solve it with me. It stems from the existence of people, the willing of the country.
Shu: You learnt painting first and then changed into behavior art, and now you begin painting again. It seems to be a big shift. Do you think there is coherence in your works? Or do you have a same theme and expressing way in your works?
Chen: I don’t care much about the coherence in forms. My works have a close relationship with what I’ve encountered in my life, and with the hiding cultural and social contradictions and conflicts nowadays. Some works have to get rid of the superficial and materialized reality and come into a spiritual level. I don’t agree that art is unilateral. It’s not just a symbol of some kind of life, some philosophical concept or social concept. Art is complex information related to human beings.
Shu: How complex?
Chen: Just like what I’ve said, art is not only about art, and artists need to work in the level of social morals. We often go to extremes when we talk about the incident in 1989 nowadays. We need to look at it in a more humane perspective. A lot of things, both domestic and international, happened during that period of time. Like the pull-down of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the death of Ceausescu in Romania, and also the 1989 incident and the short-lived Modern Art Exhibition. When you consider the citizens, the students and the soldiers as a whole in the incident, you will understand how the individuals, the country and the power ruined their prospects in the waves of history.