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Above Sea: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Ruins of Shanghai's New Heaven on Earth


Shanghai (translated as Above Sea) has long been characterized as Mainland China's most East meets West, and modern metropolis. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists, designers, and filmmakers have confronted this identity, formulating diverging notions of Chinese modernity and contemporaneity vis-à-vis Shanghai's cultural hybridity. This dissertation examines these formulations by analyzing examples of art, as well as fashion, print media, and film produced in dialogue with cross-cultural Shanghai in three key periods: the 1920s-30s during the city's semi-colonial modernist heyday, the 1960s-70s during the Cultural Revolution (Wenhua dageming), and the 1990s-2000s as Shanghai has re-emerged as a global center. My analyses problematize the trope of East meets West that has long informed the discourses both on Shanghai and modern and contemporary Chinese art, by exposing other cultural collisions (e.g., semi-colonial cosmopolitanism vs. anti-imperialist nationalism in the 1920s-30s, Maoist collectivity vs. individualism in the 1960s-70s, and local identities vs. globalization in the 1990s-2000s). The examples explored (e.g., Liang You/Young Companion magazine, revolutionary woodcuts, and painting by Parisian-trained artist, Pang Xunqin, in the 1920s-30s, socialist realist murals, revolutionary Peking opera, and a documentary by Italian auteur, Michelangelo Antonioni, in the 1960s-70s, installations by transnational artists, Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, and films by Shanghai-based artists, Zhou Tiehai and Yang Fudong, in the 1990s-2000s) span time, media, and national boundaries, allowing for analyses of diverging notions of Chinese modernity and contemporaneity vis-à-vis visual culture and its transnational movements. Many of these examples are locationally linked through a particular neighborhood said to epitomize contemporary Shanghai. Today the site of Xintiandi (translated as New Heaven on Earth), a retail and cultural complex in Shanghai's former French Concession, this neighborhood encompasses an underground history of revolutionary art, film, and design, which this dissertation uncovers. While filtered through the lens of Shanghai, this dissertation confronts broader issues, including the stakes of non-Western art's integration into art historical canons, and the role modern and contemporary Chinese art plays in the emergence of a globalized culture industry.

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