Artist fights to preserve ‘Pillar of Shame’ Tiananmen memorial as Hong Kong university demands removal

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Hong Kong’s oldest university is under way in a desperate bid to try and preserve a monument to the Tiananmen Square massacre, with administrators demanding that it be removed or face potential destruction.

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The nine-foot, two-ton concrete “Pillar of Shame”, composed of wrinkled and gritty bodies depicting those who died on June 4, 1989, has stood on the campus of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) since 1997. The iconic symbol of the city’s autonomy from mainland China, where all mention of genocide is banned and the authorities strictly control the historical narrative.

Late last week, in a letter to the Hong Kong Alliance, an activist group that has helped maintain the statue for the past two decades, a law firm acting on behalf of the HKU said it would be closed if it were to be held at 5 p.m. on October 13. hrs is not removed, it will be considered “abandoned”.

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Should it be so, “the University shall deal with sculpture at such time and in such manner as it may deem fit without notice,” law firm Mayer Brown told .

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The 5 p.m. deadline passed on Wednesday without any clear action by the university, though whether it was the result of the city being largely shut down by Typhoon Kompasu, which struck in the early hours, or ongoing legal action. , is currently not clear.

A spokesperson for HKU said that “we are still taking legal advice and working with relevant parties to handle the matter in a legal and appropriate manner.” Mayor Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

Artist Jens Galshiet, who created the sculpture and has created versions of it around the world, condemned the demand for its removal as “brutal and almost criminal”, saying he first learned about it through the press.

Mr Galciot is currently seeking to claim his legal ownership over the statue, warning that improper removal could damage the delicate artwork, which is worth about $1.7 million.

“In the case of ‘The Pillar of Shame,’ I have lent the sculpture to a permanent exhibition in Hong Kong,” the artist said in a statement. “The agreement was that the Alliance and the students at the University of Hong Kong should conduct the permanent exhibition together and bear the cost of the permanent display of the sculpture at the University of Hong Kong.”

“There is a great possibility that irreparable harm would be caused if a work of art is handled by someone other than experts dealing with the arts,” said Mr Galchiet, “and should this happen,” the university bears the risk of a compensation claim. “

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Further complicating matters is the fact that the Hong Kong Alliance, which also organized the city’s annual Tiananmen Candlelight Vigil, was dissolved in August under intense pressure from the authorities. Several senior members of the Alliance are currently in prison or facing trial under the National Security Act that came into force in July 2020.

That law has dramatically changed Hong Kong over the past year, with dozens of prominent activists and former lawmakers being laid off or facing lengthy prison sentences. Several major civil society groups have dissolved rather than risking further lawsuits, including the Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest pro-democracy activist organization, and the Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front, which organized a pro-democracy march in 2019 , which attracted more than one lakh participants.

“Hong Kong’s institutions are being replaced at warp speed as the post-2019 reform drive destroys its once thriving civil society,” says Louisa Lim, author of People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisitedhandjob wrote this week. Requesting the removal of the “pillar of shame”, the University of Hong Kong is bowing to the reality of the post-national security law and signaling that it should abandon its centuries-old tradition of academic freedom and critical inquiry in its own interests. Will protect.”

Ms. Lim is not alone in her criticism. An open letter, signed by 28 civil society groups around the world, including several Canadian organisations, calls on Mayor Brown to rescind his agreement to “represent the University of Hong Kong in its effort to remove the famous ‘Pillar of Shame’ sculpture from the university”. Did. Campus.”

Employing some 200 lawyers, Mayor Brown describes itself as “one of the largest and longest established law firms in Hong Kong”. The firm is headquartered in Chicago and has major offices in London and New York.

Susan Nossel, chief executive of free speech group Pain America, condemned Mayor Brown on Twitter for her “willing involvement in the repression”, saying it was “serious to see a reputable US law firm acting this way”.

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