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Student spotlight: Yawen Tan

Yawen Tan

Yawen Tan, M.A. '20 is graduating this year with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies. During her time at Stanford, Yawen’s research centered on visual culture in modern and contemporary China. She focused on topics ranging from pictorial photography in the Republican Era to public art, aesthetics, and spatial politics in contemporary Shanghai.

She devoted her first year at Stanford to researching her article, “Dialectic Redemption: Lang Jingshan, Literati Landscape in Photomontage, 1920s-1940s,” which later became her master’s thesis. “What fascinates me about this particular topic is its transmediality between photography, painting, and poetry, and its interdisciplinary potential that brings together visual history and critical theory,” she says. “In this article, I challenge conventional art historical approach to understanding the period’s pictorial photography, and seek to portray a historical conjunction between Chinese neotraditionalist art and anti-Enlightenment Western philosophy.”

Yawen hopes that her work can contribute to an understanding of visual arts as they touch upon human cognition and political ontology, which might supplement conventional methodologies of art history or performance studies. She reflects, “I wish my work could be a bridge between different temporalities, spaces, conceptions, and cultures. I came to regional studies with a background of western continental philosophy and modern art history, so I’ve always been wrestling with how Western intellectual/visual traditions shed light on contemporary Chinese issues, such as urban displacement, state capitalism, art’s political efficacy, and cultural/commodity spectacles.”

As part of her master’s program at the Center for East Asian Studies, Yawen received a summer travel grant and returned to Shanghai, where she had completed her undergraduate studies. During her summer in Shanghai, she observed a burgeoning artistic urbanization, a phenomenon she has engaged with in historical, political, and philosophical conceptualization during her second year at Stanford. “My participant observation in Shanghai inspires me to investigate how governmental projects gather ‘high bohemians’ – visual artists, dancers, actors, and musicians – to redefine or ‘curate’ the city’s image.” She notes that “this is a convoluted and understudied topic that touches upon issues like site-specificity, globalization, the production of space, as well as the classic tension between art’s autonomy and social commitment. The trip complemented my experience at Stanford considerably as it kindles my desire to build a new theoretical framing.”

As she looks back on her time at Stanford, Yawen is most proud of the relationships she built with faculty members and her peers. “My life at Stanford would be inconceivable without their emotional and intellectual support. I believe they’ll continue to inspire me as I move on to the next chapter of my academic career,” she shared.

After graduation, Yawen will pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California, Davis, where she will continue her current research on the aesthetics and politics of arts in Shanghai urban space. “I wish to do research at the intersection of urban space art and the city dwellers’ political perceptions of citizenship. My future fieldwork seeks to reveal everyday art encounters or praxes in the modern metropolis, which might supplement our understanding of avant-garde legacies.”


Please join us in congratulating the class of 2020! As the academic year draws to a close, we are highlighting students graduating from across our 14 programs. Click here to view more student spotlights.