The Zimmerli Museum of Art at Rutgers University in New Brunswick is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in China with an exhibition of photographs by Khiang H. Hei.
Born in Cambodia in 1968, Hei was participating in the State University of New York College at Oswego’s China exchange program.
In April, 1989, he became aware of student activists gathering in Tiananmen Square to call for political change and civic freedoms.
The square, whose name translates as “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” plays an important and symbolic role in China’s history and has been called the largest public space in the world.
Drawn to the human drama and historic moment, Hei returned regularly to document the marches and hunger strikes before the bloody June 4 showdown between strikers and the Chinese government.
But, as the Zimmerli materials note, “In contrast to the coverage of Tiananmen Square in contemporary news outlets, Hei’s account shows the humble origins of the protests that would later draw international attention.”
According to the Christopher Henry Gallery in New York, where a Hei exhibition marked the 20th anniversary of the strike, “As a student himself, Hei was more than just a journalistic voyeur at an historic event, he was an impassioned observer. His ability to capture the intensity of the moment as it grew from a student to a national movement is evident in the iconic images captured throughout its duration.
“As the numbers swelled within a month to over 100,000, it began to spread from students to workers to civilians. Hei’s photographs capture that infectious spirit of Liberty in the square as even children began to join in the activities. As the crowds grew the communal spirit of the gathering took on a darker tone, leading the Chinese government to declare Martial Law.
“On June 4, 1989, tensions boiled over as violence broke out as the Chinese military attempted to clear the square resulting in the June 4th massacre. The bright light of Liberty was extinguished by the dark cloud of an oppressive, authoritarian regime. What started out as a documentation of ideals turned into a nightmare of crushed hopes and dreams.”
Regarding his own work, Hei notes the following:
My documentary photographic work is primarily concerned with contemporary social, cultural, and political matters relating to Southeast Asia and China and how this intersects with my own personal history and experiences. In 1989, in China as part of a student exchange program with Beijing Teacher’s College, I documented the Tiananmen Square uprising.
In 1992-1993, I retraced my steps as a refugee in Cambodia. In 1994, an Arts International/National Endowment for the Arts grant supported a second Cambodia project in landmines. And in 1995-1997, I returned to Southeast Asia to document various aspects of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian social, economic, and cultural recovery from the effects of war.
I see my photography work as evolving from my personal history through historical events and across cultures. My childhood was disrupted by the U.S. war in Southeast Asia and the political and cultural turmoil of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal re-ordering of Cambodian society.
My family became refugees, finally arriving in the United States in 1981. My recent photography has been a process of reconsideration and re-appropriation of these past experiences.
As part of the process, I traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1993 and during my last visit to Southeast Asia in 1996 and 1997, where I documented the consequences of the aerial bombing and the materials left from the secret American-Vietnam War in Laos and Cambodia.
What I learn in schools and what I do in the field is contradictory. I consider myself as an artist. I make sculpture, paintings, and installation work but have never kept them. If I make anything else other than photography, then someone needs to rescue my art from me.
Eugene Smith, Robert Heineken, and my fellow artists are inspirations. I also find inspiration when I travel to places where people live in a very basic lifestyle or places that are just beginning to recover from years of war.
I never make a project with an ending date. I revisit each project over again and again. I may put it aside for a time but it never stops.
Tiananmen Square, 1989: Photographs by Khiang H. Hei, Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through July 28. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerli.rutgers.edu.