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"Downside Up" The Art of Lois Conner

Lois and I met in New York in the summer of 1996, and since then we have worked together on many projects (a list of our collaborations is given below). She made work in Wairarapa, New Zealand, when I first moved here in late August 2016, a selection of which has been published in these pages. In May 2017, she will participate in Featherston Booktown, showing a selection of her work in the Gallery of le Quartier Français, home of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology.

Lois Conner’s latest exhibition is at the Gallery of The Temple Hotel 東景緣, Beijing, from the 23rd of April 2017 is a collaboration with the M97 Gallery in Shanghai. The artist asked me to suggest a title the shows, and to write for the catalogue. She has kindly given me permission to publish the essay I wrote for her on the eve of the Beijing opening. The gallery also invited a Chinese writer to comment on Lois’s work, and I introduced them to an old friend, Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠, an essayist, publisher and founder of One Way Street. Zhiyuan opens his mediation — ‘Yesterday and Tomorrow’ 昨日與明日(see below) — with a quotation from Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys:

In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character.

Xu suggests that Lois Conner’s work reveals the ‘stark nudity’ underlying Beijing.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage

Lois Conner uses a banquet camera, a modern version of a nineteenth-century camera used by photographers to make photographs of people massed together at such occasions as banquets because of its breadth of vision. It allowed for an elongated frame that could eliminate the distractions of the ceiling and the floor. First drawn to this format as an arts student at Yale University after she studied the landscape scroll paintings of the Ming dynasty, Conner has been using the format of the panoramic camera to pursue her work in China since 1984. The vistas embraced by the banquet camera allow her to ‘unfurl the landscape’ in a manner suggested by the scroll paintings.

The world that the artist sees through the flat plane of the ground glass under the ‘dark cloth’, as it is also known, be it megalithic limestone formations or intricate manmade structures, ancient monuments, the crowd in the street, or intimate portraits, is a topsy-turvy realm. Here, hidden under the cloth, everything that to the causal eye appears as upright and quotidian is inverted, all that is left-to-right becomes right-to-left. It is the world on the down low.

Diāndǎo 顛倒, the term means ‘upside down’. It frequently appears in the expression ‘turning black and white on their head’ hēibái diāndǎo 黑白顛倒. In other words, transposing one reality for another, when creating a fake world out of the real and a real world out of the fake.

From the earliest days that I worked with Lois Conner on a project related to the Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園 — the ruined imperial garden-palace in northwest Beijing — when she invited me to peer under the cloth and see the downside back-to-front world of the ground glass of her camera, I have frequently thought of the most famous line from China’s most celebrated novel, The Story of the Stone石頭記, translated by David Hawkes:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

無為有處有還無 假作真時真亦假

Although the world seen through Lois Conner’s hooded ground glass plane is inverted and turned around 180 degrees, it still appears under the cloth in all the variegated hues and colours of our everyday reality. Cloaked inside her camera obscura, she focusses, then surfaces from the focussing cloth to put the film holder in place of the ground glass. The image in the ground glass is now drawn on the exposed negative, the light literally turns black and white on its head. When a print of the kind we see in this exhibition is made from these negatives, black literally turns to white and white to black: hēibái diāndǎo 黑白顛倒. The downside up world is righted once more, and through the process Lois Conner’s artistic vision finds form.

Some of Conner’s work is literally ‘crowd sourced’, as a scene she has fixed in her sights might turn on her — that Skeksis-like form of photographer hidden under the focussing cloth — becomes itself the focal point of the people within the landscape. The downside turns up as what was the order of her art is upended by the unpredictability of the real world. The curiosity can be a boon to the artist in many ways; roiling crowds can create a dynamic all of their own, and it can be hard for the lone artist to pursue a singular vision. Surfacing from underneath her dark cloth, Conner often finds herself surrounded, by faces, smiles and curiosity. Sometimes she responds by making her observers the observed, inviting the impromptu audience to participate as subject-collaborators.


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