Document Type

Thesis or dissertation

Date of this Version



This paper was part of the 2014-2015 Penn Humanities Forum on Color. Find out more at


In places like contemporary China, where legal adjudication for past wrongdoings is impossible, an aesthetic engagement with the experience of loss has become essential to activating these historical remains and undermining violent narratives of progress. Tracing several generations’ aesthetic responses to the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the present day influx of global capital, I advocate for a specific type of aesthetic practice that elides the distinction between the documentary method and abstract practice. By deliberately conflating these categories I argue that these works are united in their quest to dismantle dominant ideologies, and undermine authoritative narratives by making visible their flaws and contradictions with everyday reality. Moreover, my research illuminates an evolving relationship to the documentary method – one that expands and challenges existing definitions of realism. Ultimately, my research is based on an ethical framework which demands a reorientation of our historical perspective, and a new understanding of history that is not couched in teleological notions of progress.



Date Posted: 18 November 2016