Beijing Building Lois Conner - Rossi & Rossi

Beijing Building Lois Conner - Rossi & Rossi



Lois Conner



Lois Conner

Plate 1



Lois Conner

with an essay by Geremie R. Barmé

Beijing Building

Lois Conner’s Construction

Geremie R. Barmé

1 Juliet Bredon, Peking: A Historical and Intimate Description

of its Chief Places of Interest, Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1919;

reprinted by Oxford University Press in Hong Kong, 1982, p.2.

The history of Peking is the history of China in miniature.

The town, like the country, has shown the same power of

taking fresh masters and absorbing them. Both have passed

through paroxysms of bloodshed and famine and both have

purchased periods of peace and prosperity by the murder

of countless innocents. Happily both possess the vitality

which survives the convulsions that ‘turn ashes and melt to


Juliet Bredon, 1919 1

Ninety years on, perhaps it is Lois Conner’s view from the

outdoor rooftop dining area of Capital M that sums up the

clash of cultural and political motives, architectural styles and

taste of which Juliet Bredon spoke. (Plate 22)

Capital M is the creation of the Hong Kong-China-based

Australian restaurateur cum-cultural entrepreneur, Michelle

Garnaut. With terrazzo floors, a swirling fresco that ribbons the

lengthy back walls of the establishment, and the elegant decor

that embraces guests and resiles from intimidation, Capital M

provides its own unique take on China’s once grand dynastic

capital, now the metropole of the country’s market socialism.

Looking northward from the wall of french windows diners

take in an unparalleled view of the ‘Gate Facing the Sun’,

the Front Gate or Qianmen entrance to the once-walled Inner

City of Old Peking. Beyond it a paired gate, a stump, all that

remains of an enceinte linking it to the towering crenellated

city wall. Then on to the Mao Zedong Mausoleum where the

embalmed corpse of the founder of China’s People Republic

lies in permanent state.

This is the southern precinct of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic

centre of modern China. Further north stands Tiananmen

Gate, the rostrum of which has been used by leaders of the

Communist Party to officiate over major public events in

the history of China since 1949. Further north one catches

glimpses of the golden liuli-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City

itself, and the Pavilion of Imperial Longevity on Prospect Hill

that rises immediately behind the former imperial palace.

Conner has created her own version of Tiananmen. Today little

remains of the area’s imperial geometry for the vast square

was created in the 1950s when the stately entrance to the

palace—The Corridor of One Thousand Steps—was levelled to

make room for spectacular rallies and National Day parades.

(Plates 21 & 35)

Conner watched the 1984 parade on a communal village

television in Yangshuo, Guangxi province, not long after

first arriving in China. Fifteen years later she was in Beijing

as the square was being refurbished in anticipation of the

celebration of half a century of Party rule. In a photograph

made in late 1998 blurred crowds move at the foot of the gate

cut off from the square by the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a sixlane

highway smudged with traffic. (Plate 2) The square itself

is being resurfaced by army workers, the cemetery-heart of

China marked by a flagpole in the foreground; the pagoda-like

Heroes’ Monument erected to the revolutionary dead and the

blockhouse of the Mao Zedong mausoleum both sheathed in

the haze of distance. The scene hints at the concrete reality

of these symbols and the transitory nature of those who make

and witness the mass displays in the square.

In the decade after Lois Conner made her Tiananmen, Capital

M would open for business at the southwest corner of the

square, at Qianmen, the bulldozed and recreated shopping

mall, a futuristic creation of the past of a retail district that

flourished just outside the walls of the old city. Conner’s

Qianmen, seen from the balcony of Capital M, shows the

concertina ages of modern Beijing; it presents an historical

shorthand of the last century. To the upper right-hand corner

of the frame is the newly built socialist-Bauhaus extension of

the Great Hall of the People. Further left a heritage-protected

Republican-era bank. A swathe of macadam covers what was

once the canal surrounding the city, now but a subterranean

stream. There are gargantuan festive lanterns on display and

a temporary fountain gushing at the mouth of Qianmen Mall,

all put in place to mark 1 October 2010. The tiled roofs of the

building in which Capital M is located are all part of a latter-day

chinoiserie ‘imagineering’ of Old Peking.

There was a considerable hue and cry over the demolition

of old Qianmen, an area swept away during the feverish

preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Plate 23) Today,

similar anguish is heard for the Bell and Drum Tower (Zhonggu

Lou) area which lies on the same ancient central axis of the

city but a few kilometres north.

Beijing deconstructs’ has been a popular trope for artists,

photographers, sculptors and video artists for many years. The

doppelganger discourse of construction, or reconstruction,

was born along with the founding of the People’s Republic in

1949. One of the early official propaganda journals was called

unabashedly China Reconstructs (Zhongguo jianshe). At the

height of Utopian socialism from the 1950s to the late 1970s,

4 5

Communist Party hacks would talk tirelessly of the country’s

rebuilding in the wake of devastation wrought by foreign

invasion, political cupidity and civil strife. The reality was more

complex: during High Maoism acts of creation were in constant

congress with egregious deeds of state-sanctioned vandalism

and destruction. Today, more than ever before, China’s

urbanity is the work of the construction state; it is a domain of

steel girders and concrete foundations, lofty frameworks and

profound excavations. (Plates 8, 9, 11, 13 & 19) This is the

world through which Lois Conner’s Beijing Building guides us.

It is in the capital city of Beijing that plans are mooted for

the wide-sweeping national transformations which feature

in cities as far flung as Shanghai and Wuhan, Chengdu and

Guangzhou, not to mention in hundreds of smaller urban

centres around the country. It is in Beijing that the ‘vein of

the nation’ (guomai), the pulse of the polity, is regulated, and

from which it radiates. For centuries Beijing has been home to

titanic aspirations, and it is in the images of this city that the

lingering splendour of the dynastic past and its radical present

are also most readily in evidence.

Much imperial conceit remains in the Chinese capital, for it

still rules over a territory secured by Qing emperors in the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the built legacy

of the past has been dwindling for over half a century, in the

years surrounding the 2008 Olympics a refashioning of a

Beijing, both preserved and transformed, was promised as

part of the largest international spectacle and global event

of its kind. The city that exists in the wake of 2008 is one

that bears more clearly than its predecessors the imprint of

cultural impulses and contradictions, as well as the clashing

planning histories, political forces and socio-economic

imperatives that date back over a hundred years, in turn lateimperial,

nascent capitalist and socialist. The century-old

aspiration of China’s politicians, thinkers and cultural activists

vying to realize a Chinese ‘renaissance’ (fuxing) is no longer

spoken of as a promise to the future, rather it is a programme

being turned into concrete reality today. Beijing Building is

then, also, a visual account of a city in the thrall and paroxysm

of change, self-deception and self-discovery.

Lois Conner’s Beijing is encircled by six ‘rings’: multi-laned ring

roads (huanlu). In an oral history account of Beijing, telling the

story of China during its Olympic decade, the writer Sang Ye

and I present an interview with a Beijing taxi driver. He is one

of those old-style local drivers, not one of the Hebei provincials

who fill the ranks of the newcomers and often don’t know their

way around the ever-expanding city. Like taxi drivers the world

over he is often frank, frequently amusing and devastatingly

insightful about the life, society and politics of his city. He offers

a pithy topographical context for Conner’s Beijing Building:

Beijing is so huge it’s hard to work out where north is. The

First Ring Road, well it’s not really a road, is where the old

Imperial City wall was. The Second Ring is Chairman Mao’s

Ring Road [which follows the phantom footprint of the old

city walls]: inside are still a few things left over from Mao’s

day. The Third Ring Road is Deng Xiaoping’s, the Fourth is

Jiang Zemin’s and the Fifth and Sixth belong to Hu Jintao.

Everything up to the mountains are the fucking rings of Hu!

They’re even crapping on about constructing a Seventh Ring

Road. They’ll be ringing right in to Hebei province soon….

Things are constantly changing. When we were kids, we

thought how great it was that things were different every day

under socialism. But now that things really are in constant

flux with the Hu Ring around the Jiang Ring and new buildings

inside and outside each ring, everyone wanders around as

lost as stray dogs.

It is this world of expanding rings that Lois Conner first entered

nearly three decades ago. Since then she has, through her

work, tracked the outward reverberation of the Rings of

Beijing. Old Peking, the city of dynastic creation that was

slowly modernized during the Republican years, was originally

built on a grid, one whose geometry was determined by the

points of the compass. Since the 1980s, however, it is in the

boastful, upward thrust of high-rise construction that Beijing

has been built. In the patterns of these vertical frames, too,

Conner investigates what lies beneath the integument of the

contemporary city, searching for a lost metropolis whose past

sensibility lies as a gossamer over the exoskeletons of today’s

leviathan signature structures.

Engineered around the imperial throne and the south-facing

emperor, the city’s four cardinal directions of north, south,

east and west were not only points on the compass, but the

means by which people oriented themselves, their houses,

their lives and their movements. To ‘not be able to find north’—

zhaobuzhao bei—is a colloquial Beijing expression that is both

practical and metaphorical. The rings have confounded the

grid, and true north no longer exists.

The taxi driver is scathing in his observations of the new world

that has sprung up around him over the past decade. While

visitors may marvel, older residents are readily appalled by the

wilful dismemberment of the body of Beijing:

This Beijing of ours was (designed according to the form of

the god) Nezha—three-headed, six-armed Nezha with his feet

on wind-fire wheels, golden halberds in his hand, and a sword

and cudgel for defeating demons tucked in his belt. He was

known by everyone—be they in heaven or on earth. From

this you can see we’ve got traitors in our midst: they don’t

like Beijing, they think it’s too backward, not friendly enough

towards the foreign devils. We can’t have that these days, can

we? But all the good things have fallen into the hands of the

devils. Which is why the bastards with all their plans have

turned Beijing into a bird.

‘Bird’ (niao) is a term that also expresses contempt, disgust

and bastardry in the local patois of Beijing. The taxi driver

describes the new contours of the city and its recently famous

iconic buildings, many of which feature in Lois Conner’s work:

The bird’s legs are stabbed into the East Third Ring Road—

the off-kilter ‘big underpants building’ that serves as China

Central TV’s headquarters. (Plates 18, 20 & 34) Its head is

over on the West Ring Road, beak agape—the damn thing

they call the Millennium Monument. Of course, a big bird like

that needs a nest, doesn’t it? Well, the nest has been plonked

down on the North Fourth Ring Road. (Plates 4, 12) On the

radio they even boast that it’s the biggest nest in the world.

Fuck me, but what the hell is so impressive about throwing

scrap metal into a pile?

Of course, a bird needs more than a nest. It needs to eat. So

they built it the Water Cube, a Perspex birdfeeder. Big birds

lay big eggs, and this bastard’s laid its egg right on Chang’an

Avenue—‘China’s Great Whorehouse’. (the Grand National

Theatre, Plate 16)

This garrulous account is a powerful complement to Beijing

Building. For Conner’s Beijing is only seemingly lyrical; it

conveys too a vision of captured change. Certainly, within the

tireless industry of urban transfiguration it provides precious

moments of contemplation, quietude and respite. But Conner

evokes a world in which ideas of Chinese identity and its claims

to greatness are, literally, made concrete. Her account of the

6 7

city’s office towers and the solipsistic workspace of modern

commerce universalises the Beijing experience. (Plates 26,

28, 31 & 33)

From these office windows we catch glimpses of the outside

world—no sylvan idylls promising respite from the daily grind.

These vistas, rather, are of cityscapes in which the office and its

battery life are replicated as if to infinity. Some lunge up close,

confronting, others in orderly ranks are as mute vanguards of

a future that already seems like an eternal present. And within

these four walls that frame them?—crystalline sarcophagi for

the sky-high interment of lives, of dreams, of hopes and fears.

Containers and fishbowls with sheer surfaces, glaciers in which

the life in miniature pulses still. They are replete with industry

productive as it is fickle, demanding ever greater resources as

it engorges all, extending to the very end of history.

In Beijing Building tension and unease over the country’s

economic might and mercantilist ambition roils through the

very foundations of new buildings; it spreads restlessly through

the rubble of the shattered past and entwines the vaunting

structures of a future made imminent.

Through Conner’s sweeping vision our eye is invited to

investigate the patterns of the past, but the artist, while

enjoining us to soar, confronts at every turn, daring us to

overlook the looming meaning of Beijing’s present.


Geremie R. Barmé is a writer on China, editor of China Heritage

Quarterly ( and Founding Director

of the Australian Centre on China in the World, The Australian

National University.


10 Plate 2

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 5

Plate 6

Plate 7

Plate 8


Plate 9

Plate 10

Plate 11

22 Plate 12

Plate 13

Plate 14

Plate 15

Plate 16

Plate 17

Plate 18

Plate 19

Plate 20

Plate 21

Plate 22


Plate 23

Plate 24

Plate 25

Part II

38 Plate 26

Plate 27

Plate 28

Plate 29

Plate 30

44 Plate 31

Plate 32

Plate 33

48 Plate 34


Chang’an Jie, World Fantasy Hotel, Beijing (2000), cover

Lujuan Village, Beijing (2010), plate 1

Tiananmen reconstruction, Beijing (1998), plate 2

Olympic Park construction, Beijing (spring, 2008), plate 3

Near Guomao bridge, Beijing (2010), plate 4

Yuanming Yuan excavation, Beijing (2004), plate 5

Ganmien Hutong, Dongdan, Beijing (2010), plate 6

Dongzhimennei Lu, Dongdan Subway, Beijing (spring, 2008), plate 7

Wangfujing construction, Beijing (1998), plate 8

Mandarin Oriental construction, Beijing (2005), plate 9

Wangfujing construction, Beijing (1998), plate 11

National Stadium construction, Beijing (spring, 2008), plate 12

Xizhimen, Bank of China construction, Beijing (1998), plate 13

Madian Bridge (link to Badaling Highway), Beijing (2003), plate 14

National Stadium construction, Beijing (spring, 2008), plate 10 Ming Dynasry City Wall Relics Park, Beijing (2004), plate 15

National Grand Theatre, Beijiing (2009), plate 16

Andingmen Donglu Construction, Beijing (2002), plate 17

Jintaixi Lu, Beijing (2008), plate 18

Xizhimen, Beijing (1998), plate 19

CCTV Construction, near Chaoyang Lu, Beijing (2009), plate 20

Tiananmen, 50 th Anniversary Floats, Beijing (1999), plate 21

Qianmen, Beijing (2010), plate 22

near Zhengyangmen, Beijing (2008), plate 23

Olympic Park, Beijing (2008), plate 24

50 51

Shell Oil, Beijing (2009), plate 25

Coca-Cola, Beijing (2010), plate 26

Saatchi and Saatchi, Beijing (2010), plate 27

Saatchi and Saatchi, Beijing (2010), plate 28

Boeing, Beijing (2008), plate 29

From Guo Mao, Beijing (2004), plate 30

Coca-Cola, Beijing (2007), plate 31

Coca-Cola, Beijing (2010), plate 32

Shell Oil, Beijing (2009), plate 34

Tiananmen, 50 th Anniversary floats, Beijing (1998), plate 35

Selected Solo Exhibitions

2011 Building Beijing, Rossi & Rossi, London

2010 Life in a Box, Hanart, Hong Kong; Embassy House, Beijing

2008 Spring Training, Beijing 2008, Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

Angkor Wat, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario

2007 Twirling the Lotus, Rossi & Rossi, London

China Lucida, Myrna Myers Gallery, Paris

2006 Lotus, Eric Zetterquist Gallery, New York

Thogan, Tibetan Plateau, Latse Tibetan Cultural Library, New York

2005 The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, The British Library, London

2004 Lois Conner, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou

2003 To Be, Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

2002 Across China, Embassy House, Dongzhimenwai, Beijing

About Landscape, Hollywood Center for Art and Design, Florida

2001 Yuanming Yuan, Sherman Gallery, Sydney

Depicting China, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong

2000 Lotus, Selections from the China Book, Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

Selected Group Exhibitions

2010 Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Platinum Process: Photographs from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century,

Philadelphia Museum of Art

2009 Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West, Museum of Modern Art,

New York

Tibetan Contemporary Art; from the Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin,

Museum of Art, Oglethorpe University, Georgia

Eye/World, curated by E. Cheng, M. Loh, Triple Candie, New York

Picturing New York, Museo di Arte Moderna di Trento e Rovereto

2008 The Printed Picture, curated by Richard Benson, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Picturing Modernity: Photography Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

The Wide Open, Missoula Art Museum, Montana

2007 Art for Yale: Collecting for a New Century, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

China Seen By…, University of Rhode Island Art Museum, Providence

2006 New York, New York, Grimaldi Foundation, Monaco

Office Aura, Dorsky Gallery, Long Island City, New York

2005 Peonies and Lotus (with Andrea Modica), New York Horticultural Society, New York

52 53

Coca-Cola, Beijing (2007), plate 33

Lois Conner



1981 Yale University, MFA, Photography

1975 Pratt Institute, BFA, Photography

Grants and Fellowships

2007 Anonymous Was a Woman Fellowship

2007, 2010 Princeton University Research Grant

1984 Guggenheim Fellowship

1983 New York State Council on the Arts

1979 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship

1975 Pratt Institute Research Grant

Selected Teaching Positions

Princeton University

Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York

Yale University

China Academy of Arts, Hangzhou

International Center of Photography, New York

Stanford University

Selected Collections

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Museum of Modern Art, New York

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC

Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Philadelphia Museum of Art

New Orleans Museum of Art

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

Cleveland Museum of Art

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

The British Library, London

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Australian National Gallery, Canberra

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

2005 Surface (incl. Harry Callahan and Lee Friedlander), Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

2004 New Selections from the Permanent Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Arti & Architettura, 1900-2000, Palazzo Ducale, Genova

Celebrating Contemporary Chinese Art and Culture, Sotheby’s, New York

New Work, Liu Haisu Art Museum, Shanghai

2003 The Land Through a Lens, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,

Washington, DC

Oasis, Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

The Auroral Light: Photographs by Women, The Grolier Club, New York

2002 Photography: Past Forward, Aperture, New York

Line and Landscape, Asia Society Benefit, Ethan Cohen Gallery, New York

A City Seen, Cleveland Center for the Arts, Gund Foundation, Ohio

Selected Anthologies

2008 The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie, National Prairie

Foundation, Montana

First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

2005 The Physical Print, Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, Richard Benson

2004 Arti & Architettura, 1900-2000, Palazzo Ducale, Genova

Chinese Photography, Christie’s Catalogue, Hong Kong

2002 Photography: Past Forward, Aperture, New York

Autopia: Cars and Culture, Reaktion Books, London

2001 The Great Wide Open: Panoramic Photographs of the American West, The Hunington

Library, San Marino, California

1999 Imaging China: Fifty Years Inside the People’s Republic, 1949-1999, Aperture, New York

Selected Museum Catalogues

2009 Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West, MOMA, New York

2008 First Doubt: Optical Confusion in Modern Photography, Yale University Art Gallery

2007 Life of the City: New York Photographs from the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of

Modern Art, New York

2005 Keeping Shadows, David Acton, Worcester Art Museum

1998 Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Sackler Gallery of Art, Sackler

Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, DC

1997 Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present,

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

1996 The Enduring Illusion: Photographs from the Stanford University Museum of Art,

Joel Leivick, Stanford University Museum of Art, Stanford University, California

Selected Reviews

2010 Inside the Box, Koon Yee-wan, Muse Magazine, Hong Kong, Issue 39

Offices with a View, Karen Yan, Baccarat Magazine, Hong Kong, Smart Arts, April

Offices, Ming Pao Weekly, Hong Kong, Essential, April 14

2007 Art: Twirling the Lotus, Peter Chapman, The Independent, October 27

News Brief England: Twirling the Lotus, Asian Art News

2006 Artistic Treasures Take Manhattan During Asia Week, Art Review, The New York Times

2005 The Nobel Metals, Platinum and Palladium, International Photography, Spring

2004 End Frame, Holly Stuart Hughes, Photo District News, November

Lois Conner ‘To Be’, Ken Johnson, The New York Times, Art Reviews, January 2

Emily Cheng and Lois Conner, Chris Moylan, Art Asia-Pacific, Fall

Beyond Place, Priya Malhotra, Asian Art News, September/October: V14 No. 5

Photo Echo, Aperture, November

Photographic Harvest, Shanghai Star, December 12

Emily Cheng and Lois Conner, Roberta Smith, The New York Times, Art Review, June 25

Lois Conner, Joel Simpson, The New York Art, September

2003 A View of the City, Christopher Ringwald, PDN: Photo District News, January

Voice Choices, Vince Aletti, The Village Voice, December 24-30

2002 Lois Conner, Mathieu Borysevicz, Art Asia Pacific, March

A City’s Many Faces Reflect Photographer’s Vision, Jo Thomas, The New York Times

2001 China: The Photographs of Lois Conner, Andrea Birnbaum, Graphis, January/February

2000 Pics of the Week: Hong Kong, Desiree Au, South China Morning Post, January 19

Allowing the Chinese to Look Chinese, Vicki Goldberg, The New York Times, October 29

Book Review: Photography, Andy Grunenberg, The New York Times, December 3

Art in Review, Margaret Loke, The New York Times, October 20

54 Plate 35

first published as part of the exhibition:



Lois Conner

3 February - 5 March 2011

16 Clifford street

Rossi London W1s 3RG

t +44 20 7734 6487

Rossi f +44 20 7734 8051

© Rossi & Rossi Ltd. 2011

Text copyright © the authors. Images courtesy of the artist

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be transmitted in any form or by any means,

electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any storage or retrieval system,

without prior permission from the copyright holders and publishers.

ISBN 978 1 906576 21 9

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Coordination: Martin Clist

Assistance: Mauro Ribero

Design: Ruth Höflich

Cover image:

Chang’an Jie, World Fantasy Hotel, Beijing (2000)

Pigment ink on Hahnemuhle

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