BEIJING — Rows of faces painted in a funereal palette of black, white and gray stare from the canvas. In the middle of them lies a scene of tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square.
Liu Yi has never tried to exhibit the painting, nor has he shown it to anyone besides his wife and a handful of friends, for fear of punishment by Communist Party authorities. He keeps it in his studio with other works on forbidden topics as a reminder of what he believes is his responsibility as an artist.
“The government wants us to talk of other things, to forget, but the feelings are still inside us,” he said. “As an artist, you can’t run away from the truth.”
Wednesday marks 25 years since China’s leaders sent soldiers and tanks against unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square in one of modern history’s most brutal crackdowns. Since 1989, the government has tried vigorously to erase all trace of the massacre from public memory. It is rarely mentioned in schoolbooks and vigilantly censored from China’s Internet.
But among a small circle of artists, Tiananmen became a turning point, intensifying their opposition to the government and inspiring works that both recall the massacre and assail other government abuses. Over the years, Tiananmen has also confronted many in China’s cultural world with this question: Does an artist in a repressive society have an obligation to pursue not just beauty but also truth?
In the West, Ai Weiwei has been the face of this debate. A darling of the international art scene, he has long clashed with authorities at home. But he is for the most part an outlier. Most self-proclaimed dissident artists toil in obscurity with few places in China to sell their work. Their most loyal followers are often the state police who detain and interrogate them.
Such artists are increasingly facing another hurdle: disdain from China’s now-vibrant contemporary-art community, which is enjoying a boom in which paintings can sell for millions of dollars. Many in that world deride the dissidents’ moral stances as hectoring and regard their anti-party themes as passe.
“Just because a topic is sensitive doesn’t mean it is worthwhile,” said a collage artist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of authorities. “There is so much more to be explored and expressed — like life, love and death.”
Many dissident artists reject such reasoning as self-serving.
“Art is supposed to be a dialogue with society. To avoid talking about Tianamen, government oppression, corruption, things that continue to dominate our society, is to ignore reality,” said Wang Zang, a Beijing writer who explores Tiananmen in his poetry.
“The core essence of art is freedom of expression,” he said. “What is there to express if you don’t have that?”
Chinese artists have long wrestled with government-established limits. Today, government censorship is increasingly lax when it comes to historical figures such as Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China, and events such as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. But certain topics — such as Tiananmen, current party leaders and Tibet’s autonomy movement — remain off-
Some contemporary artists inch up to the official red line but stop short of crossing it, to lend their work an edginess. Many simply explore other topics. Then there are artists who aggressively flout the censorship, like Yan Zhengxue.
At 70, Yan walks with a bent back. He has lived through the dramatic evolution in China’s art world since the 1949 founding of the Communist state. Tiananmen was the turning point in his work, he said in an recent interview at his home — which took place just after a visit from state security agents warning him not to talk to foreign media. Many artists have received such visits in recent weeks, and some have been detained.
Too many artists in China have become obsessed with wealth and success, Yan said, the result of three decades of economic boom. “But it remains a society where the party controls all the strings, where people suffer with no explanation,” he said. “What is the point of drawing the green grass or pretty flowers in the face of that?”
Yan began his career in the 1960s painting the only subjects then allowed — portraits of Mao and rosy depictions of China’s working class.
When the rules finally loosened in the 1980s, Yan joined others trying to build an avant-garde movement, experimenting with abstract and performance art.
But then came the Tiananmen crackdown, which is estimated to have killed anywhere from hundreds of people to several thousand. Yan heard the news on the radio in his home village of Taizhou, in eastern China.
Soon after, his son died in a suspicious car crash that Yan blames on police, with whom Yan had repeatedly clashed. Those two events created a fury in him that remains visible.
Like some artists, he had been critical of the government even before the Tiananmen killings. But afterward, Yan became part of an emboldened dissident movement committed to condemning the party and its policies more directly.
He sued the government after being severely beaten in 1993 and landed in a labor camp for two years. While there, he produced a series of abstract brush paintings, hiding them in the excrement of the jail’s outhouse for his friends and family to later retrieve.
One of those works, titled “89.6!!!! Tiananmen” shows a blackened sun above a barren Tiananmen Square strewn with black-bleeding veins. Three goats stand in the middle of the square. “They represent the obedient ones, the only ones left alive,” Yan explained.
Other dissident artists say the influence of Tiananmen runs through their work even as they have embraced other themes.
Wang Peng, 43, a painter in east Beijing, now devotes almost all of his artistic efforts to protesting forced abortions carried out under China’s one-child policy.
Originally from a rural village, he said he didn’t learn details of the Tiananmen crackdown until he obtained software in 2002 that allowed him to jump government firewalls on China’s Internet.
Wang had been critical of the party in much of his previous work. But his paintings had tended to be abstract, with a more diffuse political message and a greater focus on aesthetics. After finding out the government had fired on its own citizens, he abandoned painting and took up photography, persuading doctors to smuggle him bloody surgical gloves and the remains from forced abortions and incorporating them into his pictures.
The Tiananmen crackdown “made me want to rip open the most shocking and ugly side of society. It made me realize beauty is not what’s important, reality is,” said Wang, who tutors high school art students to support his work.
“In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretence,” he wrote in a 2012 op-ed published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Among China’s dissident artists, no one has flirted with the censors’ prohibitions as skillfully as Ai, or won as much fame and fortune while doing it.
While most artists whose work criticizes the party have trouble finding venues for their creations, Ai’s sculptures, photos and installations have been featured across the globe, including at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. He has tackled Tiananmen as well as censorship and government corruption.
Critics deride the work of Ai and other dissident artists as gimmicky, ham-handedly provocative and too direct. They say it oversimplifies the complexities of China’s society into moral rights and wrongs. But their most stinging criticism? That it’s not art.
“It’s all stunts, phony posturing,” said one longtime art exhibitor in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about party-restricted topics such as Tiananmen evoked by dissident artists. “It’s not so different than the government’s propaganda, but a type that’s aimed at pulling foreigners’ heart strings. It’s their way of getting noticed.”
Philip Tinari, director of the influential Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, has supported the work of Ai and other artists. But he takes issue with the argument put forward by dissident artists that any modern Chinese art is bogus if it doesn’t confront the party or its problems.
“To fight is perfectly valid, but so is creating a space which can offer people a place to think,” he said.
There’s no shortage of debate among dissident artists themselves over ideological purity, fueled at times by the kind of rivalries and pettiness that can exist in artistic circles anywhere.
Being a true artist, Liu said, requires ignoring not just the government’s strictures but also the opinions of critics and even fellow dissidents. In recent years, Liu has moved on from portraits of Tiananmen’s victims to depictions of Tibetans who have immolated themselves in anti-government protests.
“You must paint the truth that is inside of you, just as you must face the reality around you,” Liu said. “If you do not, you will not find anything of worth to say. That’s what makes real art.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.