Christina Shen is a senior from Hong Kong majoring in Art History. Her research focuses on Modern and Contemporary Asian and Asian diasporic artists; she is especially interested in transnational artistic practices, the relationship between personal and collective histories, and the visibility of the racialized body in art across various media. Her honors thesis explores the emergence of “abject” Chinese performance art at the turn of the 21st century. Outside of her research, she works part-time at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, writes for her Arts & Life column at the Stanford Daily, and is illustrating a children’s book.
Flesh Matters: Corporeal Materiality, Medical Commodification, and the Social Body in Chinese “Flesh” Art
Advisor: Richard Vinograd
What is the focus of your current research?
I am researching Chinese performance art in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a sudden emergence of controversial performance works that involved the use of corporeal materials. More specifically, I am examining the works of Sun Yuan, Peng Yu and Zhu Yu and how their use of body materials amplifies anxieties about social kinship in China and the global commodification of the human body. I hope to recover a more materially and socially based understanding of their practices that goes beyond the sensationalist and Orientalizing discourse surrounding their works.
What drew you to this topic?
I spent a semester studying Chinese art history at the University of Hong Kong and worked at the M+ Museum during my gap year. The art I encountered in these experiences piqued my interest in the often underground, transgressive status of performance art in China. Abject “flesh” artworks began to proliferate at a unique time in China’s history when the country was simultaneously experiencing rapid economic growth and globalization and an increasingly conservative sociopolitical environment. I am drawn to my research topic because I want to understand how these global dynamics and China’s social condition relate to the performance works I am exploring. Moreover, these works frustrate easy acceptance and I hope to use the thesis to work through my own qualms about how to evaluate works of art that are challenging, gory, and violent.
How are you conducting your research?
My research relies primarily on art historical scholarship from both Chinese and non-Chinese sources. In addition, I am looking closely at the curatorial statements of curators who organized the “flesh” art exhibitions, interviews with art practitioners who participated in these exhibitions, articles published by both local and foreign critics, and relevant Chinese film and literature from the 1990s to 2000s.
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
People might be surprised to learn that the three artists I am researching were all trained in painting at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. Even though they later became known for their experimental performances that used non-traditional materials, they initially followed a Socialist Realist studio tradition. This may seem aesthetically unrelated to their later work, but scholars have insightfully pointed out that this tradition of realism in Chinese art training allowed artists to develop a sensitivity to social trends and phenomenon, which they then channeled (and dismantled) in their performances.
In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic?
Popular discourse outside of China frequently pigeonholes Chinese Modern and Contemporary art into one-dimensional narratives about political oppression and expressions of “Chineseness.” Furthermore, discussions around “flesh” artworks have overwhelmingly evolved into debates about ethical relativism and deemed the works derivatives of Western art. This is a limiting and reductive approach to Chinese art that I hope to bring needed nuance to. The artworks I am exploring lack critical attention, are not commercially viable, and exist outside the realm of “official” art, which is also why I think they deserve more consideration.
How is your honors thesis impacting you academically and/or personally?
Working on my honors thesis has been extremely rewarding in its challenges. The research and writing process involves a constant negotiation with myself that has brought about important moments of reflection and self-understanding. This project has also pushed my bilingual research abilities and encouraged me to dive deeper into Chinese literature and film, which has been incredibly fulfilling.
How do you anticipate the fellowship will be able to support your research?
Beyond the stipend and office space provided by the fellowship, I am most looking forward to engaging with the other Hume fellows and being part of a community of folks from a variety of humanities disciplines! I’m hoping that the conversations we share about our projects and processes can be a source of encouragement and inspiration throughout the year.