Jenny: Have you heard about the giant inflatable Tank Man sculpture? Apparently Shake, a Taiwanese artist, created a art installation and placed it outside the Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
Tom: Art installations pop up in city squares and shopping malls all the time. What’s so special about this one?
Jenny: Well, it is specially created to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown which took place in Beijing. Here’s a picture of it.
Tom: Woah! Shake’s artwork is both powerful and simple. I really like how the big, green inflatable military tank towers up like a monster. It looks menacing.
Jenny: Yup, and the second part of the installation is a figure of a man in white shirt and black pants directly facing the monster tank. Both parts are anchored to the ground with ropes and weights.
Tom: This reminds me of Shake’s artwork, which is inspired by one of the most famous images of all time. I remember reading that in the morning of June 5th, 1989, an American photographer Jeff Widener was on the balcony of a hotel overlooking Tiananmen Square when he captured the photograph of an unknown man who stood in front of a convoy of tanks leaving the square.
Jenny: Exactly. It was the day after Chinese troops had attacked, killed and wounded pro-democracy demonstrators packed into the square and nearby streets. Suddenly, a line of military tanks came into view. And out of nowhere, a man appeared from the crowd. He was wearing black pants and a white shirt and carrying shopping bag. The man walked in front of the leading and remained there for several minutes before being pulled away by onlookers.
Tom: During the time, reporters were prohibited from photographing or videotaping any of the demonstrations or Chinese troops. And so, Jeff Widener knew he had captured an important image with his photograph of the “Tank Man”. He managed to smuggle the photographic film out of China, and the iconic photograph appeared on the front pages of thousands of newspapers.
Jenny: And the well-known image of the lone Tank Man became the symbol of individualistic defiance against repression overnight. But who is he exactly?
Tom: Nobody knows who Tank Man was. Soon after the incident, an English newspaper reported he was a 19-year-old student called Wang Weilin, but the claim was rejected by the Chinese government who stated that they had not been able to identify the person.
Jenny: Also, the Chinese government has never confirmed the number of people killed during the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4 1989, with estimates ranging from several hundred to thousands.
Tom: The iconic photograph is also censored in China. In 2005, a group of university students were secretly shown Jeff Widener’s photograph of Tank Man, and they said they knew nothing about the incident. One student even said he thought the photo was fake.
Jenny: Over the years, Tank Man has appeared in songs, films, novels and even on T-shirts. Early this year, the event was dramatised in a popular TV mini-series called Chimerica.
Tom: Clearly, Tank Man is not going away anytime soon. And Shake’s art installation is just one of many others that pay tribute to one man’s courageous act.