Tank Project

He Xiangyu


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Italian leather
150 x 890 x 600 cm
He Xiangyu was only three years old when People’s Liberation Army tanks rolled into Beijing on 4 June 1989 to end the pro-democracy demonstrations that had occupied the vast spaces of Tiananmen Square, in the centre of the city, since early that year. Manned by young army recruits brought into Beijing from other parts of China, these were ‘S59’ tanks, based on the armoured vehicles donated by the Soviet Union earlier in the twentieth century. The image of the tank is highly sensitive in China, together with other reminders of the events in Beijing in June 1989. The artist simply says that his tank is based on ‘the same tank that was used during sensitive incidents in China’s recent history.’ The tank, of course, as a more generalised symbol of military power and authority, may be interpreted in multiple ways. This particular tank replicates Soviet-designed vehicles that became prototypes of all subsequent tanks used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The artist says he found the relic used as the basis of his sculpture near an army base at the frontier between China and North Korea. It was a ‘T34’, a Soviet tank used in World War II and given to the Chinese, who began to copy them, naming them Type 58. In order to copy the tank He Xiangyu and his team had to enter the army base covertly to measure the different parts of the tank by hand. It took four months to determine all the measurements required to produce the detailed plans for an exact simulacrum, using expensive Italian vegetable-dyed leather. Two hundred and fifty full-scale tanned leather hides were used to create the outer ‘skin’ of the tank, four hundred separate pieces sewn together with fifty thousand metres of wax string. The finished work weighs over two metric tons. The artist trained a factory workforce to stitch the tank — instead of making shan zhai (fake) copies of designer handbags, they were employed to sew a flaccid, entirely useless instrument of destruction.

In the gallery space, the smell of the leather is overwhelming. Deflated, flattened, a parody of a fierce war machine, He Xiangyu’s collapsed tank reminds us of the inevitability of global power struggles. At the same time, sprawling over the gallery floor as if shot, it points to the human cost of military conflict .
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