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A Goddess Old in Form, New in Spirit

June 18, 1989|Tsao Hsingyuan | Tsao Hsingyuan is a Chinese artist and art historian married to James Cahill, a UC Berkeley art history professor

BERKELEY — Nothing usually excites a sculptor so much as seeing her own work take shape. But I was watching the creation of a sculpture I had had no part in making, yet feeling the same excitement. The "Goddess of Democracy" stood for five days in Tian An Men Square. I witnessed the story of its creation.

Until last year I was a graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where the sculpture was made, and was living there when these events took place. I did not participate directly in making the statue because of my own status--I am now living mostly abroad with an American husband. That might have made trouble for the students; I might have been identified with the "small group of instigators" the government was charging as responsible for the demonstrations. So I adopted the role of observer and supportive friend of the students.

By May 27, a week after the declaration of martial law, the student movement seemed to be losing energy; the students suspected that the government was waiting for them to tire and leave the square by their own choice. Word got around that on the evening of May 29 there would be an "important announcement" on Central Broadcasting, perhaps the resignation of Zhao Ziyang. The Federation of College Students decided, as a response to this broadcast, to stage the largest demonstration of all, involving students, workers, residents--everyone--after which they would all return to their schools and homes.

Students and faculty of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, located only a short distance from Tian An Men Square, had been actively involved in all the historic demonstrations from the beginning.

In the first days, they were the ones who had made the huge oil portrait of the recently deceased Hu Yaobang and propped it against the Monument to the People's Heroes in the Square. On May 27, a representative of the Federation of College Students came to the Central Academy from Beijing University to ask for another large-scale work of art, this time a statue, to be ready by the time of the great demonstration on May 30. That gave them three days. Undergraduates in the Sculpture Department agreed to take on the job. There were about 15 of them, all young men in their early 20s. The Federation suggested that the sculpture be a replica of the Statue of Liberty, like the smaller one that had been carried in a procession by demonstrators in Shanghai two days earlier. But the sculpture students rejected that idea: it might be seen as too openly pro-American and copying an existing work was contrary to their principles as creative artists. What was needed, they felt, was a specifically Chinese symbol. But how could an original, major sculpture be finished in three days, even if they worked through the nights?

Their solution was ingenious and a thoroughly academic approach to the problem: The students decided to adapt to their purpose a studio practice work that one of them had already made, a 20-inch-high clay sculpture of a nude man grasping a pole with two raised hands. It had been done as a demonstration of how musculature and weight-distribution are affected when the center of gravity is shifted outside the body. This was the unlikely beginning from which the goddess was to grow. The students cut off the lower part of the pole and added a flame at the top to turn it into a torch; they leaned the sculpture into a more upright position; they changed the man's face for a woman's, added breasts and otherwise made him into a her. Finally, they draped the whole figure in a robe. They knew from their training that a draped figure not based on an organic body underneath would be structurally unconvincing.

This transformed model was then made the basis for the 33-foot statue. It was first cut into four horizontal sections; teams of young sculptors constructed each part of the huge work for assemblage on the square. The main material was foam plastic, large pieces of it carved and held together by wire, with plaster added to the surface to join the pieces more strongly and to allow finer modeling. Constructed this way, the four sections were fairly light: each could be lifted by five or six students.

When the time came to transport the pieces to the square, a new problem arose. The students had intended to bring the sections in an academy truck, but the Security Bureau heard about it and sent word that any driver daring to take them would lose his license. So the students hired six of the familiar Beijing carts--made like a bicycle in front, with a flat cart on two wheels behind. Four carts carried sections of the statue; two carts had tools and materials. Students from other arts academies joined the group to escort the carts as a kind of honor guard. The procession was led by a bearer of the Central Academy's flag, followed by two ranks of strong young people

A route was announced and then changed, in case the police were waiting to stop the students.

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