Detained Australian artist wanted to finish Tiananmen work

Beijing: As Guo Jian put the finishing touches on his latest installation – slathering 160 kilograms of minced pork over a diorama of Tiananmen Square – he did so in great secrecy, only letting his closest friends in on his work.

The Chinese-born Australian artist knew the sensitivity of the project, with the Chinese government determined to impose a collective amnesia on the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations which culminated in the bloody military crackdown of June 4, 1989.

Dozens of activists, intellectuals and rights lawyers had already been detained – rights groups put the number at 50 - including fellow artist Chen Guang, who slathered white paint over walls numbered with the years 1989 to 2014. But  Guo, 52, just wanted to finish what he started.  

“I’m not worried about being arrested, I’m just worried about not being able to finish it,” he told a close friend, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

At around 6pm on Sunday night, “seven or eight” uniformed policemen arrived in two police cars at his studio in Songzhuang, an art colony on the eastern fringes of Beijing, according to friend and video artist Dong Xiaoli.

“I called out to him, he turned back and smiled at me,” Mr Dong told Fairfax Media. “Then he was rounded up by police.”

On Tuesday, Tiananmen Square itself was a picture of calm, albeit under tighter security than usual.

Chinese authorities have made Google’s services largely inaccessible in recent days, affecting its search engines and email services, while Chinese search engines like Baidu have removed sensitive search results relating to the anniversary.

Parents from activist group Tiananmen Mothers will only be able to visit the graves of their children, who died during the violence 25 years ago, under police supervision on Wednesday.

The detention of Guo Jian is not just conspicuous for its apparent impingement on artistic expression, but that in a wider crackdown on discussion or commemoration of the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese authorities are prepared to detain foreign nationals – in this case an Australian – if they see fit.

Australian embassy officials, many personal friends with the popular artist, are powerless to help until they receive confirmation of his detention from Chinese authorities, which under consular agreement should occur within the first 48 hours.

“There’s nothing they can do to expedite the process,” one source with knowledge of the matter said.

In a statement on Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the “initial advice from Chinese authorities is that Mr Guo was detained on a visa-related matter”.

Australian embassy officials “were in contact” with Chinese authorities, the department said, and were “pursuing access to Mr Guo as soon as possible”. Officials hoped to make a consular visit in the “coming days”.

The news spread quickly through the tight-knit art community, and after trying repeatedly to ring him, one friend, art consultant Melanie Wang, managed to get through. Calmly, Mr Guo confirmed he was being detained and that he had been told he should expect to be released in about two weeks.

His phone rang unanswered on Monday, and was switched off on Tuesday.

“His work was just an expression of his feelings; he didn’t plan for it to be displayed outside,” close friend and artist Wu Yiqiang said. “China’s history needs clarifying and restoration. It should let people make judgement by themselves instead of hiding. An artist shouldn’t become the target of political persecution.”

As he was led away, Mr Guo managed to fire off short text messages to friends saying, first in English, that he was “with police” and then in Chinese, that he was being taken to a detention centre.

Mr Guo’s art has been displayed at numerous important exhibitions in Australia, including at the National Gallery of Australia.

“Guo Jian is and was one of a very important wave of emigre artists who focused the attention of international  audiences on the art of China in the late 1990s in a very positive sense for that country,” said Evan Hughes, director of Ray Hughes Gallery.

“At this stage, I can only hope that the detention is relatively routine and that the Australian government is doing everything within its power to assist with Guo Jian's speedy restoration to freedom.”

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