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Tiananmen 20 years on: An artist speaks out

Interview: Sheng Qi on the past, present and future of China.

[Editor's note: June 4th is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. For more GlobalPost coverage, read what dissidents think about the event, how one museum fits into China's patriotic landscape, the thoughts of a former student protest leader now in Taiwan, and what a leading artist makes of it all, below.]

BEIJING — Leaning against a wall of the F2 Gallery in the east end of Beijing's Dashanzi art district is a painting of an attractive Chinese public security official. She has an austere pale beauty, accentuated by the image's black and grey coloring, but the real kicker is the bright-red 100-yuan bill she coyly holds in front of her crotch.

Sheng Qi's "Most Wanted" is part of five series of works created between 2006 and 2009 the artist is showing in an exhibition that, deliberately or not, coincides with the 20th anniversary of the event with which he is most often associated.

It's implicit criticism of official corruption suggests Sheng has lost none of his desire to remind his audience of the Tiananmen Square tragedy since he severed the pinkie finger of his left hand in a symbol of protest following the event. The gesture has informed his most famous work, from sculptures of waving Chinese astronauts to photos and paintings that frame images of modern China in the palm of his dismembered hand.

So as China's Internet censors clamp down on everything from Hotmail to Twitter in the run-up to the June 4th anniversary, the tensions in Beijing's 798 art district are high.

GlobalPost: Are you worried about the consequences of showing your work at such a sensitive time?

Sheng Qi: I'm a little bit worried. I'm going to show some dead bodies — a young girl dead, killed, her face and her body beaten (the picture is conspicuous by its absence from the portfolio passed to the press here). Before I couldn't show that. It's too violent. I used to have a small space here (in 798) that was showing my work for a couple of months until the management asked me to take it out. If it was 10 years ago, I would be in big trouble and I still get nervous, but now they just ask me to take the work down. To be honest I didn't know what was going to happen next, but so far it's been OK. The people who make these judgments don't really know about art. Even the Central Academy of Fine Arts don't know, so how people can come and look at a showing and make a judgement is beyond me.

What are you you trying to show with this collection?