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Reframing Narratives of Water Control: Strategies of Resistance in Chinese Performance Art

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Water, as a prominent motif in China’s intellectual and aesthetic tradition, became politically loaded as the Chinese government incorporated the control and domination of water as means of demonstrating state power and establishing political legitimacy. Amid exacerbating sociopolitical dislocations in the 1990s, the Chinese government dedicated major efforts to water control initiatives in an attempt to rejuvenate the public’s faith in the administration. In concert, many performance artists produced works that responded to state rhetorics regarding these projects. This thesis examines a selection of Chinese water-themed, site-specific performances from the 1990s, and investigates the visual and symbolic strategies they employed to defy ideals of progress, productivity, and the “collective good” valorized by these state rhetorics. Drawing from theories of politics and aesthetics proposed by French theorist Jacques Rancière, this thesis explains the mechanisms with which these performances productively reconfigured the stakes of water and water control within public consciousness, and redefined political participation within China’s highly restricted arena of acceptable speech. In so doing, it contributes to the evolving discussion of how artistic production can advance ecoactivist agendas and function as a creative means of political commentary in the contemporary world.

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This item is under embargo until May 26, 2028.