Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial: Photographs by Lois Conner is a vast visual tour of contemporary China, allowing us to reflect on China’s rising power in the context of its history and cultural landscape. The exhibition covers a span of three centuries, embracing the dynastic glory of the Qing and its decline, the revolutionary 20th century, and the post-imperial and post-socialist story of Beijing and China today.
A central focus of the exhibition is the Garden of Perfect Brightness, or Yuanming Yuan. This 800-hectare garden-palace was both China’s Versailles and Louvre. It was built and expanded from the 1690s until 1860, and served as both the de facto center of the Chinese empire as well as a site for elite Chinese culture. Buildings, follies, and waterways were constantly altered. New structures and sites drew on elements of ancient political practice as well as poetic imagination and fantasy, cultural myth, and imaginative play.
Yuanming Yuan was plundered and severely damaged by an Anglo-French expeditionary force in October 1860. Today, Yuanming Yuan is China’s national ruin, symbolic of the country’s decline and humiliation and an inspiration to the dream of national revitalization—the tireless theme of official propaganda.
While the ruins of the magnificent garden provide the basis for the project, their juxtaposition with images of contemporary Beijing speaks to the anxieties about China as a new global power while reflecting on its troubled foundations.