‘Phoenix’ rises from China’s industrial ashes

On Dec. 26, MASS MoCA opened its exhibition by prominent contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing. The exhibition features Xu’s newest work, Phoenix, as its centerpiece. Phoenix consists of two massive metal birds suspended from the lofty ceilings of the museum’s warehouse-like Building 5. Weighing 12 tons each, the male phoenix, Feng, measures 90 feet in length from beak to tail and the female phoenix, Huang, measures 100 feet, filling the football field sized hall. Xu used a variety of industrial waste materials including demolition debris, steel beams, bamboo scaffolding, gloves, shovels, helmets and Chinese laborers’ daily trash to build the body, feathers, talons and tail of the mammoth creatures.

After winding through a short maze of corridors lined with large wooden shipping crates, visitors of MASS MoCA emerge in the expansive hall of Building 5 to find themselves dwarfed and awed by the imposing and impressive pair of phoenixes. The birds draw visitors’ eyes upward, shocking them with their dominating presence within the expansive space and then with the unexpected grace that the gigantic suspended creatures possess. The birds’ scrap metal construction gives them a rough and powerful appearance; yet they seem to flutter delicately alongside each other. Internal LED lights contrast with the rusted industrial bodies, illuminating the edges of their forms and imparting the appearance of a constellation.

Xu began this project in 2008 after returning to Beijing from the U.S. to discover a rapidly changing urban setting. As new skyscrapers rose in the urban center, Xu began collecting the rubble of the demolished buildings for his new creation. The project was finally completed in 2010.

In Chinese culture, the phoenix serves as a symbol of power and imperialism. Xu makes a statement with Phoenix about the contrast between the wealth and opulence of the newly constructed buildings and the poor laborers who constructed them. Fittingly, his piece resonates with the western associations of the phoenix as a symbol of rebirth given that Phoenix literally rose from the ashes of Beijing’s demolished buildings.

The birds were originally intended to hang in the glass atrium of the World Financial Center in Beijing, one of the newly constructed skyscrapers.

In an interview for The New Yorker, Xu explained that his idea involved using the waste materials from the construction project to create a piece that would hang in the new building. As he intended it, the birds would add grandeur to the buildings, which would in turn both highlight the roughness of the piece itself and reveal its implicit contrast.

As it hangs in the 300-foot room of MASS MoCA, Phoenix exudes Xu’s intended contrast of extravagance and poverty. The piece is both beautiful and ugly because of the materials used in its construction. The exhibit will run through Oct. 31 at MASS MoCA. The art surrounding Pheonix is a collection of Xu’s related and compelling work, including pieces from his Background Story and Tobacco Project series. A “second chapter” of the exhibition will open on April 27. MASS MoCA is free for students.