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Tiananmen Square crackdown

Never before seen images of Tiananmen protest published as negatives

Smartphone needed to view as positives the images by Xu Yong, which the Chinese photographer insists are art and a way to examine the events of spring 1989 that makes readers interact

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 11:22am

As you flip through the latest photography book by Chinese artist Xu Yong, it seems strange to be staring at colour negatives of scenes from demonstrations in Tiananmen Square during the spring of 1989. Nothing makes immediate sense. But the jacket cover instructs readers to use their smartphones and change the settings to "invert colour" or "colour effect - negative" - and suddenly images come to life of protesters holding up banners and shouting slogans beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong on the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Negatives is an art book, says Xu, adding: "I have no interest in discussing what the images mean."

Indeed, when the publisher of New Century Press in Hong Kong, Bao Pu, originally wanted to release the book to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown last June, Xu insisted the subject of the book wasn't important, and he wanted to avoid launching it on an anniversary, lest people "attack the book's meaning".

"I respect his strong feelings for artistic expression. I compromised and had the book printed in December last year," says Bao. "He was very meticulous before we printed the book. Xu did the scanning professionally. He was concerned about the quality of the images. He made the scans himself and treated the colours."

The two met through mutual friends last spring after Xu finally decided to publish the negatives for the first time.

"I met him for the first time when he came to Hong Kong twice, for a week each time," Bao recalls. "He came when we were getting the book ready for the printers, and then came again to make sure the colour was right."

The printing and effect is strictly according to the artist's wishes, says Bao, adding: "It's not a normal book."

Xu had just quit his job in a state-owned advertising company in the spring of 1989 when students took to the streets in Beijing, demanding an end to corruption, less censorship and more freedom. The unprecedented movement inspired the avid photographer to take about 500 rolls of film, but in the end, he chose only 64 images for the book.

The images show thousands of people congregated around the square, holding up posters; people with bullhorns shouting slogans; tents set up; and then the last negative in the book is an ominous, blurry photo of a tank.

When the books were printed and distributed to bookstores, Xu wasn't happy with the cover, and the publisher had to scramble to recover all the copies and reprint. It was finally released in February. Bao says the cover only looks slightly different from before.

Having the reader use a smartphone creates interaction with the book. "When you use the smartphone, you feel like the artist is speaking to you with this interaction," Bao says. "You choose where you want to go and see all the details because the scans are in high resolution.

"If it was printed in 'positive', then you would just look at the images and lose interest because these are pictures you've seen before. But since the book is printed this way, you feel the need to spend time examining the photographs in front of you. It's an interactive feature I'm proud of. It's welcomed by the artistic community. We've had requests from European dealers about the book."

Xu is no stranger to controversy, although not with political themes. In the late 1980s, he took haunting black-and-white photographs of Beijing's hutongs, or alleyways, capturing them before they were knocked down for redevelopment. Most recently he followed a prostitute for 24 hours, taking pictures of her face at various times of the day.

He was also one of the main activists who pushed for an abandoned munitions factory in Beijing to be turned into an art complex, which is now known as 798 Art Zone.

Xu is pushing boundaries again with Negatives, although he insists that what he's done is art. "He took the photographs 26 years ago, but he has never printed photos from the negatives before," says Bao. "We want to preserve the negatives as they are. It also illustrates he cannot print positive photographs on the mainland."

Xu says digital photos are easily manipulated, so they lose credibility compared with negatives that can be admissible as evidence in court. "We interpret these images as a record of what happened. Xu considers that they are a form of expression," says Bao, who adds the book's subject matter is too important not to publish.

Cheng Yee-man - co-founder of C&G ArtPartment, which promotes local artists and exhibits political art - says Negatives is an interesting project, and understands Xu may be concerned about drawing attention from the authorities. Even so, Cheng thinks the pictures should be published in positive.

"It should not be necessary to use a smartphone," he says. "It's too much; it needs to be accessible to everyone. If you have a good photograph, viewers will take time to appreciate it and examine it carefully."

Because the book is printed in Hong Kong, Bao hasn't been able to send copies to Xu by courier. He tried once, and the shipment was nearly confiscated.

"The courier company is forced to act as a Chinese censor," Bao says, clearly frustrated.

"We told them to send it back, but they said we would have to pay more. We had already paid a lot to send it and they didn't even deliver it to the artist, and then we had to pay more to get it back. It's one of those headaches.

"It's just an art book."

Negatives is available from Green Field Bookstore, price HK$320