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First conceived and constructed in China, Xu Bing’s paired “Phoenix” sculptures have flown the coop and are currently nesting at MASS MoCA in Western Massachusetts. Bing is a MacArthur grantee who since 2008 has served as vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA), and his story behind the creation of these birds relies upon a well-honed film by Daniel Traub (also titled “Phoenix“) to contextualize its meaning for Western audiences. Without the video component of the exhibition, the phoenixes are just wonderful, massive sculptures resembling an audacious Burning Man phantasmagoria.
The twelve ton mythical pheasants measure 90 and 100 feet (for the male and female, respectively), and are built entirely of discarded industrialized debris. They are awe-inspiring in the tradition of Chinese folk art and craft — meticulously soldered, hammered, conceived, and hung. I initially saw them in 2010 in Beijing, where they seemingly flew suspended from two enormous cranes in front of the Today Art Museum. At sunset, small light emitting diodes dotted their frame, making them resemble ancient constellations in the sky.
Seen at MASS MoCA up close and in broad daylight, their sheer mass and girth signifies their labor; they are clearly hand made, cleverly constructed, and turn ordinary tools of labor into the larger sum of their parts — a magnificent, mythical being.
Traub’s film opens with a slow, steadycam shot of a welder splaying sparks on the underside of what looks like suspended junk: tire rims, girders, empty hose tanks, curlicue ribbons of metal. Beijing’s Central Business District comes into focus with workers riding bicycles on their way to work , giving way to a shot of Xu Bing wearing his signature owl glasses.
Bing explains that in 2007 he was asked to take on a public commission for a new building, a style of project he wasn’t particularly keen on. He visited the construction site and had a “deep reaction” like when you encounter “a large animal.” He had come face-to-face with China’s ubiquitous and unsolvable problem: migrant workers. He defines them them as “extraordinary,” saying they possess “tremendous skills and abilities,” but live under tremendously harsh conditions. And it’s true because for most urban Chinese migrant workers are a half step above dogs; they have no Hukous — city living permits — cannot legally bring their families to live with them, go to school, or receive health care, and are often cheated out of their minuscule wages by unscrupulous construction managers.
In a flash of inspiration, with a dollop of social consciousness, Bing decided to use the cast off materials from the construction site to make a “meaningful” work of art, as these buildings represented China’s emerging wealth and “capitalist spirit.” Noting migrant workers had actually touched each piece, he felt it still retained their “spirit.” The building slated for use as the site of the sculpture reminded him of a birdcage. He originally thought to put cranes inside it, but settled instead on two flying phoenixes.
The project was developed during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, and at one point to keep the air pristine all commercial traffic was banned from coming into the city. This also had the effect of bringing his work to a screeching halt. Simultaneously, the global financial crisis hit, forcing the developer to question his initial investment in public art, and he decided the sculpture would look better “covered in crystal.” This was obviously not what Bing intended, so the developer withdrew his financial support. The Phoenixes were left forlorn and stranded in a warehouse thoughout the long cold winter.
Barry Lam, a wealthy Taiwanese art collector came to the rescue, revitalizing the project by providing much-needed financial support. It was completed by a team of construction engineers, and hung for approximately two weeks outside the Today Art Museum of contemporary art in Beijing, where its presentation alternated between day and night.
Traub’s film also explains an intriguing historical coincidence surrounding the installation. MASS MoCA is actually housed in the old Sprague Electric factory building. In an very odd twist of fate, in 1955 Beijing factory number 718 began making capacitors, which eventually put Sprague Electric out of business. Beijing factory number 718 later merged with the bustling art area currently known as 798, a thriving arts community likened to the Greenwich Village of yesteryear.
This fact sets the stage for the 2013 transportation of the Phoenixes to MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. In the film, Bing states that “Chinese urbanization and globalization is rooted in a Western value system, development model and culture,” and the Phoenixes grew from this model. He noted China is at a delicate and transitional moment in its history, concerning its “methods … momentum and vitality,” a situation in which even the Chinese are not sure “where [the country is] going.” He says China is trying to “confront China’s problems and the problems of the world,” but its focus has not “yet become sharp.” This, he declares, is the true message of the Phoenixes.