The front doors are propped wide open when I arrive at Guo Jian’s studio. My immediate thought is that the Chinese-Australian artist is taking advantage of a rare blue-sky day in Beijing to let more sunshine spill into his workspace in Songzhuang, an art colony on the Chinese capital’s eastern outskirts.
Then I notice the antiseptic smell of chlorine bleach. Guo, who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests that ended so bloodily on June 4 1989, tells me he has just finished cleaning up the mess from his latest installation and is trying to air out his studio. Just a few days earlier, he had covered a large diorama of Tiananmen Square with 160kg of minced pork.
It had been a hot week in Beijing and it wasn’t long before the meat turned a greyish green hue and started to smell. Guo proudly shows me pictures of his creation. They make me queasy. It’s not the type of thing you want to look at just before lunch. “I wanted to do something privately to mark the anniversary,” Guo says, in Australian-accented English. “But I should have covered [the diorama] in plastic first. It would have been easier to clean up.”
Guo and I head out for lunch. I thought we would go to a nearby restaurant that I know he likes to frequent. But, as we turn the corner, I see that it has been demolished. That’s China for you. One day, it’s your favourite neighbourhood canteen. The next, it’s a pile of rubble.
Guo, 52, has been dwelling on China’s helter-skelter destruction-reconstruction quite a bit in his recent work. Before he decided to slather it with pig meat, the Tiananmen diorama was no peaceful replica. Instead, he had rendered it as a giant construction site littered with miniature bulldozers, jackhammers and other wrecking equipment – the reality of China’s much-hyped urbanisation drive unleashed on the symbolic heart of the capital.
Other recent pieces in Guo’s studio include some that at first glance appear to be traditional wintry landscape paintings, rendered in black and white. On closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be denuded environmental landscapes painstakingly created with small pieces of litter he has collected. These works represent a marked departure from his earlier paintings of Chinese soldiers and curvaceous women, the latter modelled on members of the entertainment units that sing and dance for the troops.
A native of southwestern Guizhou province, Guo was 17 when he joined the People’s Liberation Army and in 1979 was sent to the front during the brief Sino-Vietnamese war, although he never saw combat. The propaganda used to stir soldiers’ bloodlust is something he explores in his work.
“The army is regarded as a loveable institution. But at Tiananmen I realised it’s not, they will kill you if ordered to. And how do they build up this machine? In part, they use women,” Guo says. “From these army images I want people to see how this violent culture not only existed before but is still strong in China.”
Guo’s military background is one of the reasons I wanted to speak with him ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. After leaving the army, Guo studied fine arts at Beijing’s Minzu University. In 1989, aged 27, he saw the tragedy unfold from both the perspective of the young protesters and the soldiers sent to crush their movement.
“I was a soldier once and I was a student once and I can see myself in each,” Guo says. “There are two of me.” While his art is often bleak and macabre, in person he comes across as a profoundly gentle soul.
. . .
We get in a small san lun che – a three-wheel vehicle with a small compartment for passengers – for the 10-minute ride across Songzhuang to Mina’s Restaurant, which specialises in Sichuanese cuisine and is run by an almost entirely deaf waiting staff. A young man silently brings a small tablet computer with Mina’s menu to Guo, who orders five simple dishes and a big bottle of Yanjing beer for us to share.
The restaurant is crowded and noisy but is surrounded by bamboo that pleasantly filters the sun’s glare. Two revolutionaries look down at us from the west wall – a picture of Che Guevara, chomping a cigar, and a poster of John Lennon with a version of his quote: “I like rock’n’roll and I don’t like much.” Pictures of other musical figures hang on the south wall: Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Metallica and U2’s Bono.
The food arrives quickly – a bowl of pork ribs and potatoes, beef with tofu, stir-fried aubergine, green beans with minced pork and a plate of raw cucumbers and radishes. It is perfect. The watery Yanjing beer goes down easily.
I ask Guo how he got caught up in the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. It was just curiosity at first, he says. Unrest began in April 1989 after the death of Hu Yaobang, a much-admired Chinese Communist party chief who had been purged in 1987. Students from the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities marched past Guo’s college en route to Tiananmen Square to lionise the late leader and to demand greater reforms and liberalisation.
“My university locked the gates. It didn’t want us to go out,” he says. “But that just made me more curious. So I jumped over the wall just to have a look. I didn’t have the courage to join the first time but the second time I walked along with them.”
We discuss some of the pivotal moments in the seven weeks preceding the massacre. One was the publication of a front-page editorial by the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist party’s flagship newspaper, which condemned the protest movement as “counter-revolutionary”. The students, who saw themselves as fundamentally patriotic, were shocked. A few weeks later, they began a hunger strike in an effort to force the leadership to enter a dialogue and discuss their demands.
“They put us in a corner. When the Chinese government says you are a counter-revolutionary, you are in really big trouble. We had no choice,” Guo says. “The first night of the hunger strike was really, really hard. I was so hungry.”
My chopsticks stop in mid-air. I hadn’t known that Guo was one of the Tiananmen Square hunger strikers. I ask again to be certain and Guo confirms that he starved himself for seven days before being taken to hospital. It is at this point that I register properly that my guest has barely touched our shared food – an abstinence I had originally attributed to his having recently disposed of 160kg of rotting pork.
. . .
When interviewing someone over a meal, I often frame my questions with long preambles or offer my own rambling observations in order to give the other person a chance to get some food down. Guo, however, doesn’t take the bait. At most he nibbles on a cucumber or radish or sips his beer. I estimate that I am drinking two glasses of beer for every one of his. After a few more minutes I give up on the rambling approach: I keep the questions tight and let him tell his story.
We move to the fateful night of June 3 and the early morning hours of June 4, by which time Guo had been released from hospital and was back in the square. Tensions had been building in the movement’s last few weeks. The government had declared martial law on May 20, after which some students he didn’t recognise began taunting some of the unarmed soldiers who had made it close to Tiananmen. He tried to stop these students and later wondered if they had been agents provocateurs, trying to manufacture a pretext for a crackdown.
On the night of the massacre, Guo heard what he assumed were fireworks to the west of Tiananmen. He got on a bicycle to take a look and arrived at Fuxingmen, a major junction en route to the square where crowds were trying to try to block the soldiers’ advance with a hastily erected barricade.
Unlike the naive young peasant soldiers he had previously encountered near the square, these were older, more experienced troops – Guo’s age, perhaps, maybe even fellow veterans of the brief border war with Vietnam 10 years earlier. He saw people hit by bullets, the dead and injured rushed away on pedal carts.
“I didn’t believe it, even though I had been a soldier,” Guo says. “In the army I had never seen that sort of violence. Then I saw the tracers and people falling around me – they were just gone. I suddenly realised, shit, this was war.”
Guo abandoned his bicycle and ran, only to be trapped in a small alley near Fuxingmen hospital. Troops were firing as they moved in on his hiding spot, their pace slowed but not stopped by the bottles and bricks thrown by people screaming “fascists”.
“There was no way out for me,” he says. “But then something really funny happened. A gust of wind blew some tear gas towards the soldiers. They couldn’t see anything and I just ran. That’s how I escaped.”
Guo sought refuge in Fuxingmen hospital, where the full horror struck him. He and a few others ventured out to help a wounded man, “his blood running like a water fountain”. In the attempt, one member of the rescue party was shot dead.
By the time the violence had died down and Guo was able to leave the hospital, there were about 100 corpses stacked in an area normally reserved for bicycles. “Seeing them lined up – you feel you are not strong enough,” he says. “Walking into the hospital, walking into the emergency room packed with bodies, the smell was much stronger than in my studio. I just couldn’t do anything and wanted to throw up. I was shocked, angry, sad and hopeless. The thing I felt the most was hopelessness.”
. . .
Guo’s tone is sombre but not sad, and he speaks softly. It is now past 3pm and most of the other patrons have gone. Soon we will be the only ones left as the afternoon light softens. Most of the staff are catnapping in a back room, disturbed only when we order another round of beers. For the first time I register that the background music is American folk and I hum along with Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” – “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail, yes I would, if I only could, I surely would . . . ”
Perhaps it is the beer. We have ploughed through six bottles. Guo still hasn’t eaten much and I, too, have stopped, feeling like a glutton in comparison. Rudely, it doesn’t occur to me to ask whether there are any desserts on the menu he might like.
I ask Guo about the contrast between all the violence and destruction depicted in his art and his own calm demeanour. “I used to be an angry person,” he admits. “I think my personality changed when I was in Australia.” He moved to Sydney in 1992, was granted citizenship and stayed for 13 years.
While there, he marvelled at the fact that in Australia people could vent their anger in peaceful street protests that were not crushed; that anyone could smile at police officers – and they would smile back; that there were so many libraries to explore. “I used to hate history class because when I was in primary school our textbooks were always being confiscated and then returned with pages missing because [some leader] had been purged. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Guo had nightmares that paired the violence he had experienced in China with the peace he was enjoying in Australia. After waking up one morning, he sketched a particularly vivid dream sequence. His friends were shocked when he showed it to them. He had drawn a tank in front of the Sydney Opera House.
As much as Guo liked Australia, his art projects took him back to China on occasion and in 2005 he and a few friends decided to go into the restaurant business in Beijing. “My life was just that restaurant for three years. I felt totally stuck in China,” Guo says. “But then I suddenly realised I had another opportunity to experience and witness what was happening here.” He still has an interest in one establishment in central Beijing but otherwise concentrates on his art in Songzhuang.
Listening to Guo, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between the China he knew as a student in the mid-1980s, before the massacre, and the China he returned to 20 years later as an established artist. “That time in Chinese history was really, really open. People were talking about democracy openly,” he says of the years before Tiananmen. “Now they say you should let China change slowly.”
We leave the slumbering restaurant and walk along an empty road to find a san lun che. The cacophony of traffic steadily builds as we near the highway leading back to the centre of Beijing, where Guo drops me off. He returns to his clean, quiet studio while I am soon stuck in gridlock that’s bad even by local standards, the peace of our long afternoon lunch completely shattered.
Tom Mitchell is an FT correspondent in Beijing
The Tiananmen Square massacre, 25 years on
Zhongbahe Art District, Xiaobao Village, Songzhuang, Tongzhou, Beijing
Pork ribs and potatoes Rmb48.00
Beef with tofu Rmb48.00
Stir-fried aubergine Rmb30.00
Green beans with minced pork Rmb30.00
Cucumber and radish dip Rmb28.00
Yanjing beer x6 Rmb90.00
Total (no service) Rmb274.00 ($44)