NORTH ADAMS -- From the tons of construction debris hanging in 100-foot-long, bird-like shapes at Mass MoCA, it is a reach to think of their creator, Xu Bing, as a printmaker.
But calligraphy was Xu's calling and the art form on which he built his reputation in his native China before coming to the United States in 1989, where he taught, worked and won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship in 1999 for his "capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy."
It was when Xu, now 57, returned to Beijing in 2007 to head the Central Academy of Fine Art that his art took this particular turn. Where he had previously focused largely on language and its manipulation, he now addressed a rapidly changing environment and its social costs.
"China today and the China I left are very different," he said through a translator in an email interview. "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."
His "Phoenix Project," commissioned in 2007 and exhibited at two venues in China before coming to Mass MoCA, where it opens to the public on Wednesday, is a metaphor for the urban renewal symbolic of China's economic growth, but one, he says, that comes at human cost.
Made from tons of debris left by the construction of new Chinese office towers, it was delayed two weeks in shipment to the United States, forcing postponement of was to be a Saturday opening.
Besides a pair of mythical phoenix sculptures, the new exhibition will include other signature works from Xu's career including "1st Class," a faux tiger skin made of 500,000 cigarettes, and "Background Story," a lightbox designed to look like a traditional scroll painting, but created from shadows cast by debris.
All of them speak to Xu's practice of
rethinking the ways humans communicate and connect in order to find new ways of understanding culture and history.
While ‘The Phoenix Project' talks about "the problems that are exposed by the high speed-process of modernization and urbanization in China," he said. "It's really talking about the connection between labor and capital."
It touches, he said, "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. It's dealing with what lies behind the luxuries of urbanization."
Xu chose the image of a bird, he said, because the sculpture was originally to be placed in a glass atrium between two Beijing skyscrapers.
"The atrium looked to me like a cage," he said. "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 a] 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 many implications in China," he explained. While Western tradition connects it to ideas of rebirth and renewal, in China, Xu said, "it primarily represents the unrealizable aspirations of the people."
He said he intended the work "to 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 the debris used to make the sculptures came from old buildings being demolished, he said. "It is the trash and excrement from the creation of these new buildings. It's dealing with what lies behind the luxuries of urbanization."
Mass MoCA director Joe Thompson, who curated the show, said Xu's work, like that of other major contemporary Chinese artists commissioned to create works at Mass MoCA, has "a combination of narrative power and theatrical strength."
He mentioned specifically Cai Guo Qiang's "Inopportune" of 2005 and Huang Yong Ping's House of Oracles" in 2006-07.
"They have very direct images that translate remarkably well given all the issues you think there'd be between culture and time and distance and language," he said. "I think all these artists have a talent for communicating big bold ideas directly in tough materials."
While the phoenixes, when shown in Beijing's new downtown, "acted as a foil," Xu said, "to the splendor of these buildings," at Mass MoCA they will have an entirely different context.
"Mass MoCA is a center for imperial American art," Xu said, "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," he said, "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."
To reach Charles Bonenti:
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles