Hong Kong activists create digital render of ‘pillar of shame’ to save it from authorities


For the past 24 years, the Pillar of Shame has been erected at the entrance to Hong Kong University in memory of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, that is about to change as the university just announced its impending withdrawal. In response, several pro-democracy activists mobilized to create a digital 3D archive of the work, one of the city’s last pro-democracy symbols.

All students who attend the University of Hong Kong (HKU) are familiar with the Pillar of Shame, a towering orange sculpture depicting the faces of men, women and children, twisted with anguish. It stands prominently in the main entrance to the campus.

Danish artist Jens Galschiøt created the piece in honor of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which took place on June 4, 1989. On that day, the Chinese military transformed one of the biggest protests pro-democracy history of the country in a bloodbath. The sculpture was unveiled in 1997. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, the statue was painted orange in an effort to raise awareness of human rights abuses in mainland China.

“The old cannot kill the young” and “Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989” are written in English and Chinese on the base of the statue.

In 2020, authorities made numerous attempts to undo commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Hong Kong – authorities seized the June 4 museum’s collections, banned memorials and even removed mentions of the event in the books. And yet the Pillar of Shame stood tall, resisting Beijing’s desire to erase this bloody past from Hong Kong’s collective memory. However, that ended in October 2021, when the university said it would be phased out indefinitely.

Pro-democracy activists were outraged, as was artist Galschiøt, who said the sculpture could be damaged or even shattered if removed.

“It’s been at HKU for 24 years. He’s exactly as old as me. Sophie Mak is from Hong Kong. She has just moved to Sydney after studying art and law at HKU. When she learned what was going to happen to the statue, she and a friend decided to create a virtual 3D model of it. She posted a tweet in an attempt to put together as many photos and videos as possible. Over a thousand responses poured in – from college students, Hong Kong residents who made a special trip to the statue just to capture footage of it, and reporters who photographed it in the pass.

Dear Hong Kong friends, please help us preserve the Pillar of Shame by sending any photos you have taken of it to PillarOfShamePics@protonmail.com! We need photos taken from as many different angles as possible to create our 3D digital replica model. pic.twitter.com/3fUFIk4wb5

– Sophie Mak (@ SophieMak1) October 12, 2021 My first history class at HKU was about the pillar of shame. It’s been in HKU for 24 years. It’s exactly my age, that’s a lot. Removing it is a way to whitewash history and erase our collective memory, as authorities across Hong Kong are doing.

Sophie then discovered that a Hong Kong-based band called Lady Liberty had the same idea as her – and also had the technical expertise to make it happen.

“We want the details, signatures and expressions of the artwork.” Created online at the 2019 protests, Lady Liberty uses art to raise awareness of what’s happening in Hong Kong. The AXADLETM Observers team spoke with “Flash”, an artist in his thirties who is part of the group.

Our goal is to try to digitally duplicate the sculpture and try to archive it. We want the details, signatures and expressions of the artwork, so we went to the University of Hong Kong to take photos, close-ups, panoramic shots and videos. We can put them in different software that allows us to create a 3D image.

“This represents the little freedom we have left” The voice of dissent in Hong Kong has gradually disappeared since the implementation of the so-called national security law on July 1, 2020, which allows the authorities to arrest anyone on the vague accusation of being a “threat to national security”. The pro-democracy media have been silenced. Most pro-democracy activists have either been arrested or fled abroad, or have been keeping things as low as possible to avoid sanctions, including jail.

In this context, it has become increasingly difficult to preserve the collective pro-democracy memory. Flash suite:

The Pillar of Shame is a symbol of the free speech we had growing up in Hong Kong. And suppressing is a manifestation of what Hong Kong is becoming. Whether under pressure or controlled by the government, those who want to suppress it collude with the government. This represents the little freedom we have left in this place. It’s not practical for them, so they take it off, even though it’s not related to national security.

On September 15, nine people who had organized vigils in front of the Pillar were sentenced to several months in prison and the group behind the initiative was dissolved.

“They cannot send a hundred police officers to remove a work of art from the Internet” Sophie Mak and Flash hope that by virtually preserving the Pillar, they will make it accessible to young people of the future who will no longer be able to see the work of art itself. But according to Flash, even the Internet is not a completely safe haven:

The risk applies to the digital world as well, but that just means it’s more difficult because they can’t send a hundred police officers to remove a piece of art from the internet.

The digital museum created by the Lady Liberty group also contains their first statue, a representation of a pro-democracy protest, which was installed in Hong Kong in 2019, before being destroyed.

After the Pillar of Shame disappears, there will be only one monument honoring Tiananmen in Hong Kong, a depiction of the Goddess of Democracy, which has been at the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 2010.

At the beginning of November, the Pillar of Shame was still in place, according to our Observers, while it was due to be dismantled on October 13. The university has not said anything about the delay, but it is possible that the process has been slowed down by lawsuits. Galschiøt, for example, has turned to the courts in an attempt to preserve his statue.


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