Hong Kong activists create digital rendering of the ‘Pillar of Shame’ to save it from authorities

·5-min read

For the past 24 years, the Pillar of Shame has stood in the entryway of Hong Kong University as a memorial to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, that’s about to change as the university just announced its imminent removal. In response, several pro-democracy activists have mobilised to create a digital 3D archive of the piece, one of the city’s last pro-democracy symbols.

All students who attend Hong Kong University (HKU) know the Pillar of Shame, an imposing orange sculpture featuring the faces of men, women and children, twisted in anguish. It stands prominently in the main entryway to the campus.

Danish artist Jens Galschiøt created the piece in honour of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which took place on June 4, 1989. On that day, the Chinese army turned one of the biggest pro-democracy protests in the history of the country into a bloodbath. The sculpture was inaugurated in 1997. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, the statue was painted orange in an attempt to raise awareness about the ongoing human rights abuses being carried out in mainland China.

In 2020, there were numerous attempts by the authorities to quash commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Hong Kong – authorities seized the collections of the June 4 museum, banned memorials and have even been removing mentions of the event from books. And yet, the Pillar of Shame stood tall, resisting Beijing’s desire to erase this bloody past from the collective memory of Hong Kong. However, that ended in October 2021, when the university said it would be indefinitely removed.

Pro-democracy activists were outraged, along with the artist Galschiøt, who said that the sculpture could be damaged or even broken if removed.

'It’s been in HKU for the past 24 years. That’s exactly as old as I am'

Sophie Mak is originally from Hong Kong. She just moved to Sydney after studying both art and law at HKU. When she learned what was going to happen to the statue, she and a friend decided to create a virtual 3D model of it. She posted a tweet in an attempt to gather as many photos and videos of it as possible. More than a thousand responses poured in – from students, from Hong Kong residents who made a special trip to the statue just to capture footage of it and from journalists who had taken photos of it in the past.

My first history course at HKU was about the Pillar of Shame. It’s been in HKU for the past 24 years. That’s exactly as old as I am, that represents a lot. Removing it is a way to whitewash history and suppress our collective memory, as the authorities are doing all across Hong Kong.

Sophie then discovered that a Hong Kong-based group called Lady Liberty had had the same idea as her – and also had the technical expertise to carry it out.

'We want the details, signatures and expressions of the artwork'

Created online during the 2019 protests, Lady Liberty uses art to raise awareness about what is going on in Hong Kong. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to "Flash", an artist in their 30s who is part of the group.

Our goal is to try to duplicate the sculpture digitally and try to archive it. We want the details, signatures and expressions of the artwork, so we actually went to Hong Kong University to take pictures, close-ups, panoramic shots and videos. We can put these into different softwares which allow us to create a 3D image.

'This represents how little freedom we have left'

The voice of dissent in Hong Kong has been disappearing, little by little, since the implementation of the so-called National Security Law on July 1, 2020, which allows authorities to arrest anyone on the vague charge of being a “threat to national security”. Pro-democracy media outlets have been silenced. Most pro-democracy activists have either been arrested or fled abroad, or are being as discreet as possible to avoid punishment, including prison.

In this context, it has become increasingly difficult to preserve pro-democracy collective memory. Flash continued:

The Pillar of Shame is a symbol of the freedom of speech that we had growing up in Hong Kong. And to remove it is a manifestation of what Hong Kong is becoming. Whether they are under pressure or being controlled by the government, those who want to remove it are colluding with the government. This represents how little freedom we have left in this place. It's not convenient for them, so they remove it, even though it's not linked to national security.

On September 15, nine people who had organised vigils in front of the Pillar were sentenced to several months in prison and the group behind the initiative was dissolved.

'They can’t send a hundred police to remove a work of art from the internet'

Sophie Mak and Flash hope that by preserving the Pillar virtually, they will make it accessible to young people in the future who will no longer be able to see the work of art itself. But according to Flash, even the internet isn’t a completely safe refuge:

The risk applies to the digital world as well, but it just means it is harder because they can’t send a hundred police to remove a work of art from the internet.

The digital museum created by the Lady Liberty group also contains their first statue, a depiction of a pro-democracy protest, which was installed in Hong Kong in 2019, before being destroyed.

After the Pillar of Shame goes, there will only be one monument honouring Tiananmen in Hong Kong, a representation of the goddess of democracy, which has stood in the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 2010.

In early November, the Pillar of Shame was still in place, according to our Observers, even though it was supposed to be taken down on October 13. The university has not said anything about this delay, but it is possible that the process has been slowed by legal proceedings. Galschiøt, for example, has turned to the courts in an attempt to preserve his statue.

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