For the Holidays: The Phoenix of Xu Bing

Phoenix of Xu Bing as installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York


“One-of-a-kind,” “spectacular experience,” “magical,” and “dazzling” are some of the words used to describe the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. These words equally describe the Phoenix of Xu Bing now installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street) until the end of 2014, and, I propose, a meaningful alternative to commercial holiday attractions in New York City. This is the second installation of the Phoenix Project in the U.S. From December 22, 2012 to October 27, 2013, it appeared in the 300-foot long main gallery of MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). The two phoenixes measure 100 feet long, weigh more than 20 tons, and were made over a two-year period.

Originally the works were commissioned by a real estate developer/collector, and were conceived for the glass atrium connecting the two towers of the Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Tower. Visiting the site, Xu Bing was struck by the stark contrast between the luxury of the new building and the crude conditions in which the construction workers labored and lived. He began collecting and purchasing materials from what he saw as a landscape of waste to create the birds, which, for the artist, would emphasize the intersection of these two versions of Chinese society—its grittier realities as well as its fast-emerging splendor.

Seen from above, Phoenix of Xu Bing as installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

Xu Bing chose the phoenix, historically associated with imperial power, wealth, prosperity, fertility, and eternity, from an image a male/female pair of the Han Dynasty.

Steel rebar, girders, bamboo, scaffolding, conduit, shovels, hard hats, gloves, and other evidence of labor (and demolition) form the body, feathers, and talons of Xu Bing’s interpretation of these mythical birds. The heads of both . . . are made from the nose of industrial jackhammers, a contemporary translation of their strength and ferocity. . . . Xu Bing’s birds are a potent comment on wealth and excess—and also on the progress of modern society and the debris often left . . . Their means of production, however, are even more revealing of the complex relationship between labor, capital, and culture that is at the heart of China’s great socioeconomic expansion. . . Xu Bing fabricated the sculptures with a team of migrant workers much like those who build the skyscrapers transforming China’s cities.

When its original patrons rejected it upon realizing the critical implications of Xu Bing’s project, Phoenix ended up without a permanent home. It appeared briefly in Beijing and Shanghai before arriving at MASS MoCA and now at its glorious temporary shelter in the nave of St. John the Divine. While no longer residing in its intended site for which it resonated with meaning about the destructive, aggressive and unequal economic growth of modern China, Phoenix, one could argue, is an example of a new kind of global sculpture that people living in a modern urban environment can relate to. It’s the perfect emblem in this stage of globalization. Like the mythological bird, it rises out of the wasteland of progress and its awesome soaring beauty speaks to all of us of many languages.

Schematic of Phoenix of Xu Bing, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate


Brief Biography of Xu Bing

Born, 1955, in Chongquing, China, grew up in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution. His father, a professor in the History Department of University of Peking, was jailed and his mother, who also worked a the University in a library, was detained for re-education. As a young student Xu Bing excelled in printing, drawing, and calligraphy and while making work for his school learned how text and image can be manipulated. After Mao’s death he was able to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and became an instructor and a primary member of the ’85 New Wave Movement that changed the direction of contemporary art in China with influence from Western conceptual art and theory. Following the upheaval of Tiananmen Square, he moved to the U.S. in 1990 as a graduate student at University of South Dakota. In 1992 he moved to New York and his work was exhibited with other Chinese avant garde artists. In 1994 he participated in the Venice Biennale. He now maintains an international practice and divides his time between Beijing and New York.

Credits: All quotes and information for the biography are from MASS MoCA’s brochure that accompanied the exhibition.


Phoenix of Xu Bing, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

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