For almost 25 years, the soaring “Pillar of Shame” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt stood on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus to honor victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. When officials from the University of Hong Kong removed the pillar in December 2022, they took away a historic symbol of freedom in one of the most important locations in Hong Kong. They did so in a concerted effort to erase history and collective memory; in that effort, they will not succeed and the Danish sculpture in Hong Kong has been recreated in Norway.
The sculptor has always claimed that the status symbolism would live forever, and on May 25, a full-scale replica of the 8 meter-tall (16-foot) sculpture was unveiled by Jens Galschiøt at the University Garden in Oslo in Norway.
Installed in 1997
The Pillar was installed at the University in 1997, shortly before the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. With its many twisted faces and skulls crushed together, it was not something that was meant to be easy to look at or admire. Like the truth about the events of June 4, 1989, it is designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, and hence unable to forget this part of history.
Hong Kong was the only place in China where people could openly gather on an annual basis to remember those whose lives were lost under the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. The Pillar of Shame and the annual candle vigil gatherings in Victoria Park were the symbol of Hong Kong as the last beacon of freedom and democracy in China. The hope was that one day those who perished in Tiananmen would lay the foundation of a better China.
Shortly after the ceremony in Oslo, the Danish artist said over the phone to CNN, “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 ceremony was attended by Norwegian parliamentarians, Hong Kong activists and the dissident Chinese artist Badiucao.
A shameful event which must never recur
According to Galschiøt, the sculptures remind people of a shameful event which must never recur. The torn and twisted bodies of the sculpture symbolize the degradation, devaluation and lack of respect for the individual. The black color symbolizes grief and loss and the sculpture, which represents the victims, expresses the pain and the despair of the event. It can be used by both sides in complicated conflict situations, where it can be difficult to point out the guilty party.
The Pillar’s location on campus had a deeper significance. The University has over the past century nurtured countless thinkers and leaders. It was there that, in 1923, Sun Yat-sen gave his famous speech about his hopes for a democratic and modern China, saying, “I feel as though I have returned home, because Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong are the birth place of my knowledge.” Among other activists who followed in the footsteps of Sun at the University was Benny Tai, one of the organizers of Occupy Central, a peaceful movement led by him and others in 2014 to fight for democratic reform in Hong Kong.
On 30 April 2008, the Pillar of Shame was painted orange as part of the project The Color Orange, to raise awareness about human rights in China. As the sculptor Galschiøt was denied access to Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China painted the Pillar without his participation.
Removed in October 2021
In October 2021 the University of Hong Kong, represented by law firm Mayer Brown, formally requested that the statue be removed, although they did not cite any specific reason for the request. The university released a statement claiming that the statue belonged to “an external organization” which had publicly announced its disbandment – referring to the Hong Kong Alliance – and that it had written to the Alliance based on the “latest risk assessment and legal advice” to request the removal. Galschiøt said that he was “shocked” when hearing the news about the potential removal and that he, who considered himself as remaining the owner of the statue, had never been contacted by the university in the matter.
On 15 October, Mayer Brown announced that it would no longer be representing the university in the matter of the statue, while retaining it as a client. The move came days after intense pressure, including an open letter penned by 28 civil society groups, as well as by overseas intellectuals.
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 through 20 June. A commemorative event took place 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.
The old cannot kill the young forever
On the base of the statue, the history and pictures of the massacre are carved in and engraved into the base, in both English and Chinese, are the words “The Tiananmen Massacre”, “June 4th 1989” and “The old cannot kill the young forever.”
Today, Beijing no longer recognizes the words and spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty signed by the People’s Republic of China in 1984 and registered with the United Nations that guaranteed Hong Kong’s freedom. With the imposition of the National Security Law and the wholesale takeover of all aspects of life in Hong Kong by the authoritarian Communist government, there is now no place left for freedom.
The open commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre will not be tolerated under the “new” Hong Kong. Leaders of the opposition, like Tai, journalists, radio hosts, student leaders, and countless others, are now in prison. Charged with subversion and sedition, they are looking at years in jail simply for speaking out and fighting for freedom and democracy.
Focus on student activism, freedom of expression and human rights
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.”
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.
The original Pillar of Shame 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.
Danish Sculpture in Hong Kong Recreated in Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Photo by Wikipedia