Xu Bing’s massive ‘Phoenix’ sculptures soar at Mass MoCA, where he will speak on Friday.
Xu Bing’s massive ‘Phoenix’ sculptures soar at Mass MoCA, where he will speak on Friday. (Courtesy of Mass MoCA)

NORTH ADAMS -- In the early dark of December, the lighted bodies of the giant birds glowed like phospheresence. They are larger than any living creature outside the ocean.

In the longer April afternoons, they stretch their steel wings, and the sun falls on feathers made of hooks and wrenches, wattles made of crimson metal cannisters.

These Phoenixes are made from the debris of Beijing construction sites.

On Friday at 5 p.m., the man who conceived them will speak about their making. Xu Bing, leading Chinese artist and vice president of China's Central Academy of Fine Arts, will come to Mass MoCA to talk about his "Phoenix" project, and his country's rapidly changing people and cities.

To crown his visit, the museum will open a "Second Chapter" to the "Phoenix" exhibit -- a show of his work with language, translation and understanding.

Susan Cross, who co-curated the exhibits with Mass MoCA's director, Joe Thompson, linked the calligraphy in the new show to Xu's massive sculptures.

"There is labor in the act of writing, especially in China," she said, "to learn the beauty of it and reach those heights of tradition and art form," and fine detail in the birds.

Xu was shocked, she said, when he returned to Beijing, to see how it had changed in the 16 years he lived in America.


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The "Phoenix" began as a commission to fly in the atrium of a building at the heart of Beijing's Central Business District. Finding the bare condition of the workers beside the skyscrapers, Xu assembled a team of construction workers and scholars to design and build his Phoenixes from the materials the skyscrapers left behind.

"The unique source of its materials entangles the reality of the "Phoenix" with the realities of contemporary Chinese development," Xu said.

"For instance, there was a three- month period when, in order to guarantee air quality during the Olympics, Beijing did not allow construction work, and trucks weren't allowed to operate during the day, disrupting our source of materials.

"Then, as a result of the world financial crisis, the commissioning party refused to accept the work."

As the Phoenixes took shape, out of intricate and beautifully rough surfaces, the original commissioners backed away. They wanted a work that looked finished "... covered in crystal or contained in a glass bonnet," Xu explained in storyboard book that shows the long process of making the birds and finding them a nesting place.

All in all, "A project that was originally planned to take six months ended up taking two years, but at the same time it came to refract the current state of China and added greater richness to the meaning of the work," Xu said by email.

"I realized the graphic novel would be the most effective form for getting the viewer to recognize these implications, so we came up with "The Story of the Phoenix."

Cross said all of his work tells stories.

The new exhibit at Mass MoCA moves from a language unfamiliar to many westerners to a language they think they will not be able to read -- and can -- and then to a language anyone can read.

"Character of Characters," tells the history of Chinese pictorgrams and explains how the characters grew out of natural shapes. It shows how China has kept its national character, Cross said. Practicing calligraphy helps the students to keep their identity; it is an early training of the mind.

In "Square Word Calligraphy," Xu has turned English words into pictograms. "He is rewarding westerners when they get up close, because they can understand it," Cross said.

She described the delight in visitors as they realized the shapes they expect to fnd strange are familiar.

In an earlier work, "Book from the Sky," Xu had invented pictograms without translating them, so that no one could read them -- in "Book from the Ground," he begins with signs and pictures designed so that anyone can read them.

He began "Book from the Ground," Cross said, because he is in airports constantly -- where the signs for exits, restrooms, baggage claims are written to make sense to people speaking any language. He began to collect international signs and build an archive of symbols into pictograms to form a language from them.

He has created software that will translate into them different languages, and different languages into his symbols. And now he has written a story in them, a day in a man's life. "Point to Point" tells a story in simple actions: A man, like a figure from a restroom sign, kisses a sleeping child, embraces a woman, rushes to catch a plane.

Does a language like this face limits in its expression -- or will it continue to evolve, combining the symbols anyone knows to build more and more complex thoughts?

In her friendships and relationships with people who speak other languages, Cross said, she finds that she has to talk to them very directly -- she has to be clear, and she finds that she can get her meaning across.

"A lot of language and communication relies on context," she said. She looked up at the massive Phoenix hovering over her head, its hydraulic breaker beak as long as her arm, and at its companion raising a crest of construction workers' hard hats.

"I wonder whether they're about to land or to take off," she said.

 

If you go ...

What: Artist Xu Bing to speak

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

When: 5 p.m. Friday

Admission: $8

Information: www.massmoca.org