The myth of the phoenix casting itself into the flames only to rise up stronger is powerful and monumental, with reverberations of self-sacrifice, destruction, hope, and regeneration. In an installation in the nave of Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Chinese artist Xu Bing has realized a pair of these birds from the debris of Beijing construction sites.
Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral opened last Saturday with a celebratory afternoon of dance, dragon puppets, music, circus acts, and even high-wire legend Philippe Petit walking beneath the crafted creatures to music by saxophonist Paul Winter. After showings in Beijing and Shanghai, this is the second stop for Phoenix in the United States, following an installation last year at MASS MoCA. There the mythological animals were displayed in a repurposed factory space, while here they soar in one of the world’s largest cathedrals. The creatures will remain on view in the cathedral throughout 2014 (no official end date as of yet).
With lines of little lights from their talons to tails and claws facing the entrance of the church, the details of the phoenixes are at first hard to take in. The birds themselves, one male and one female, are massive: each weighs around 12 tons and stretches between 90 and 100 feet. The engineering of the scaffolding is almost as impressive as the work itself, carefully winding through existing openings in the cathedral architecture to hold the birds some 20 feet above ground. Once you start to walk around the space, you notice the materials of the creatures’ forms — jackhammers and shovels connected to hard hats, beams, hoses, and other castoff materials of construction.
Xu built both of the sculptures in China, and as their singular title, “Phoenix,” suggests, they are not separate constructions but a linked vision of rebirth and the complications of the country’s propelled growth. The artist spent time away from China after growing up there and upon his return found a place undergoing rapid change, much of it driven by toiling migrant workers. “Phoenix” was Xu’s response to their unseen labor and the harsh conditions of their work, exemplified in the imperfect edges of the sculptures’ forms.
As Margaret Diehl writes in the St. John the Divine newsletter:
The artist has used charged cultural debris before, including a bicycle flattened by a tank in Tiananmen Square and dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center destruction. These birds get to the heart of the matter, using the stuff of the global economic expansion to bring attention to humanity’s brazen assertion of immortality.
Much of that nuance might be lost when you step into the cathedral and see “Phoenix,” which is gorgeous in the space, the soft hues of the light blurring some of the grittiness of the sculptures’ original construction and the human cost they represent. Nevertheless, the experience is moving. Whether or not your immediate reaction is connected to the often brutal level of building in China’s flight forward, there’s definitely a collected force of materials and human hands that stuns you in the spiritual space.
Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral is on view at St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) through 2014.