NORTH ADAMS -- Contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, whose installation, "The Phoenix Project," opens on Wednesday at Mass MoCA, talked with The Eagle about his work in an email interview from his studio in Brooklyn.
His answers were translated from Chinese by his assistant Jesse R. Coffino.
Q: The Phoenix Project appears to represent a departure from your previous works like "Book From the Sky" and "The Glassy Surface of a Lake" and even "Background Story" that used texts and scroll paintings and cast-shadows as starting points to question what was real and unreal in what we perceive.
If so, what prompted this departure?
A: "Book from the Sky" was made 20 years ago in China; the other two works were made later when I was living in the United States. China today and the China I left are very different. So Phoenix Project comes from this different place. I often say that wherever you live, you will confront the problems you find there. When you have problems, you have art.
Q: I’m told the phoenix has a different meaning in China than it does in the West; that it represents imperial power and fertility among other things, and not just resurrection or renewal as it does here.
If that so? Would you elaborate on your choice of it as a metaphor or symbol?
A: In China, every period of history had its own phoenix. And its meaning also changed. So the phoenix has many implications in China.
It primarily represents the unrealizable aspirations of the people.
Originally the phoenix -- fenghuang in Chinese -- symbolized the male and female genders. The phoenix in China is two birds; originally the feng was male and the huang was female. Later the phoenix was grouped together with the Chinese dragon. There is a saying, "good fortune comes with the dragon and feng."
In China, the dragon has long represented the masculinity and so the feng half of the phoenix became feminine. The dragon was the primary body of the pair and represented power and even imperial power. And so the feng became a background character, a foil to the phoenix. So it is hard to find images in China of the phoenix carved three-dimensionally, in-the-round. They are almost always carved in relief.
But there is also a great deal of Chinese folklore that connects the phoenix to ideas of rebirth and renewal. And I am not sure whether this was taken from Western tradition or if the two traditions developed as a matter of mere coincidence.
There is a Chinese tale that describes a big fire on top of a mountain. The phoenix flew up to the mountain and put out the fire with their wings. As a result, their feathers were completely burned away. Seeing this, every other bird plucked a feather from its own body and gave it to the two phoenixes. And so the phoenix became the most beautiful bird in the animal kingdom.
That story is the derivation of the Chinese saying, "one hundred birds paying homage to the phoenix" and why the phoenix is called "king of the birds."
I originally decided to use the phoenix, because I was commissioned to create a work of art for a glass atrium, a sort of greenhouse, between two buildings.
The atrium looked to me like a cage. And I had drawn this image of a bird in a cage many, many years ago, trying to fly out of the cage with a branch in its mouth to make a nest with as if the cage was not there. It is very sad image. So I thought of that image when I saw the atrium.
I thought of this image of flight and decided to make Phoenix.
The phoenix has a more folk color to it than the dragon. There is a more folk-like quality to the phoenix; it is more connected to the life of peasants; it’s a more poignant subject. It is closer to the feelings of the people. The dragon doesn’t have this quality. It is all about power.
The phoenix is also more accurately embodies the emotions of everyday people in China today, especially China’s peasants, who are so quickly becoming city-dwellers, but are not really seen as urban people, who are so quickly becoming workers, but aren’t technically considered workers, who are leaving the homes in pursuit of a better life, which is very life the sense of the phoenix.
The phoenix has a special trait. It flies around, but never lands. It only lands when it finds a water and a sycamore tree.
Q: The Phoenix Project, I understand, looks critically at the consequences of rapid high-rise urban renewal in China, and that the debris you collected represents the many human stories lost to history because of redevelopment. Is that a fair assessment? Would you elaborate?
A: There is that aspect in the work. But is not entirely about that. The work talks about the problems that are exposed by the high-speed process of modernization and urbanization in China. It’s really talking about the connection between labor and capital.
Because this work was originally made for the new Beijing World Financial Center towers, the idea was to use the architectural debris from the construction of the World Financial Center to make something and then hang it between the two buildings.
All of the new buildings today are grand and luxurious, showing off wealth. This work would touch on the connection between the accumulation of wealth in China today and the lives of migrant workers, who come to the cities from the countryside.
None of these fragments come from old buildings being demolished, but are the trash and excrement from the creation of these new buildings. Its dealing with what lies behind the luxuries of urbanization.
Q: China has become an important global art market. How do you compare the working climate there for Chinese artists now with that you experienced in earlier stages of your career?
A: When I left China there was no art market there. So when we made art we had no concept of the art market.
Q: Does the installation at Mass MoCA differ from the way it was shown at previous venues?
A: The phoenix has a very close connection to its environment. As I mentioned the phoenix has this quality of a foil, a hidden quality. There is a saying, if you marry a chicken you become a chicken. So wherever you put the phoenix, it becomes that place.
The reason I made sure that Phoenix was exhibited on its own in Beijing before it went to the World Expo in Shanghai. The work was the product of an artists independent process of reflection.
If it had gone straight to the Expo, it would have seemed as if it were made specifically to sing the praises of the Expo’s theme "Better City, Better Life."
It was originally made for Beijing’s central business district, a symbol of modernization. This is its ideal location, to place something bearing scars and dressed in rags in such a luxurious place of wealth, something that had made itself up so beautifully, and had so much self-respect.
In Beijing’s central business district, Phoenix made the grand, luxurious buildings appear even more grand and luxurious. It acted as a foil to the splendor of these buildings, that the splendor of this wealth derived from the lowest level of labor.
Mass MoCA is a new environment for Phoenix and will add even more new meanings. Mass MoCA is a center for "imperial American art." Not art that is politically imperialistic, but work that through its scale and power, has this dominant quality.
A work like Phoenix can only emerge from today’s China, because China has a certain kind of power today.
And there is an odd tension between America’s industrial or economic power and China’s power when this work is displayed here.
It’s fascinating when something that embodies the power of Chinese people, of Chinese peasants, of what is seen as the lowest level of China, of Chinese power more broadly is brought into a place representing another kind of power that it is completely unrelated to.