The Spanish artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo is exhibiting in the Humboldt Lab small figures that depict the Tank Man, an icon of the history of democracy. In 1989, during the student protests on Tian’anmen Square, the young man stood in the way of a row of tanks.
A slim man in a white shirt, he holds a shopping bag in one hand and his overcoat in the other. Unprotected he stands in the way of a row of approaching tanks on Tian’anmen Square in Beijing. In 1989, photos and film recordings of this still not definitely identified activist known as the Tank Man circulated all over the world.
The iconic image of a single, peaceful protester holding up a column of tanks inspired the Spanish artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo. An army of his small jade-green Tank Man figures with their heads raised unflinchingly will be part of the exhibition in the Humboldt Lab.
Castillo has worked with the Tank Man motif for many years. He stages his little figures as pacifist armies – as in his 2015 Made in China exhibit for the Albertinum in Dresden. He had the figures made in China, purportedly as children’s toys. In addition to the miniatures Sánchez Castillo has made in the course of his engagement with the protester a statue over five metres tall.
Born in 1970 in Madrid, the visual artist is interested in issues of democracy, dictatorship, the power of the individual and the power of images. He translates snapshots of historic events into works of art in order to trigger debates on issues that continue to be relevant.
As in the Albertinum, the Tank Man figures in the Humboldt Lab, the Humboldt-Universität’s exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, do not serve as immobile permanent exhibits. Visitors are invited to note their thoughts about democracy and human rights on self-adhesive stickers. “Anyone who leaves a note can take away a figure in return,” says Dr Gorch Pieken, head curator of the exhibition. They can do so until the last of the 5,000 Tank Men has been removed from the display cabinet. Each figure stands for a demonstrator who was killed in the protests. The cabinet in which the figures are exhibited thus becomes a participating exhibit to which more and more ideas are affixed.
An icon of the history of democracy
“The Tank Man is an important icon of the history of democracy,” says Gorch Pieken. In 1989 hundreds of thousands of young people demonstrated in Beijing for political transparency, civil rights and an end to corruption. On June 3 and 4, the government sent tanks onto Tian’anmen Square with orders to shoot into the crowd. It is still not clear how many people were killed there, Pieken says. Estimates assume that they numbered several thousand.
2019 was the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre – and pro-democracy movements and state violence have not only clashed in the past. Quite the opposite: 2019 is also described as a “year of protests”. In many countries and parts of the world, from Venezuela and Iran to Hong Kong, struggles for democratisation, social justice and freedom of speech have flared up. So the Tank Man is a symbol for the present and not just for the past.
Means of controlling and suppressing protest have changed since 1989. The Internet serves as an instrument of control. Facial recognition software or mobile phone movement patterns are used to monitor the population, and not only in China, Gorch Pieken emphasises. Individual rights, human rights and democracy are increasingly contested in many parts of the world. Contestations of the Liberal Script are under investigation in the Humboldt Forum by the excellence cluster of the same name at the Freie Universität and the Humboldt-Universität. They include the Tank Man and, for example, his role in the 2019 protests for democratic rights in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
It is still not entirely clear what became of the young man who stood up to the tanks in 1989. In China recalling the 1989 protests is forbidden and contravening the ban is severely sanctioned, Gorch Pieken says. Memories are kept alive by protests and artistic activities such as Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s figures in the Humboldt Lab. “In the Humboldt-Lab, however, the Tank Man has not only a memorial but also an appealing function – appealing for assistance for people in distress and support for the demand for freedom, equality and fraternity for everyone all over the world,” the curator says.
|Date:||07. September 2020|