By the Way: Migrating phoenixes in flight


Above, her head tilts. It seems as broad as my torso in the half-light, stretching into the air. The whorls of her coronet are as wide as my head, and the spine above curves far out of sight, ridged in feathers, tipped in points of light.

She is massive and suspended in the air, like the Apatosaurus skeleton in the museum of my childhood -- a living thing made out of articulated, rock-hard pieces.

Her head is a lapis-lazuli blue hydraulic breaker.

She is a Phoenix -- Fenghuang -- one half of Xu Bing's two birds at Mass MoCA. Feng, the male phoenix, and huang, the female, are now often merged into one word, as though the two birds are one creature.

Here they are flying, one after another, in a room the length of a football field. I approach on a winding path through packing boxes, and when I step into the open, the first shape seems to come toward me gradually, as I walk softly into the dimly lit room.

The whole is 12 tons and 100 feet long -- as big as a blue whale. It feels like a constellation.

I came today to see the new shows that have opened around the "Phoenix" project, and to see Xu Bing's birds, welded from construction materials, steel joints, shovel heads, from the skyscrapers rising in Beijing.

Now I know how lucky I am to have seen them.

Beyond the lithe giant birds, this is a show about the making of them. A story board under the windows, catching the natural light, tells the story of the design crew and the crafters who worked with Xu Bing to make the Phoenix and of the shifting Chinese economy that inspired the birds -- and that almost kept them from taking off.

The perseverance of the people who made them power of the work.

Up a short flight of stairs, an ostrich raises its head -- and fencers parry a fern frond or a feather with a pair of giant calipers. In "Life's work," Johnny Carrera opens "The Pictorial Webster's Dictionary" as wide as a room. Illustrations run floor to ceiling on sail cloth, as though Darwin on the Beagle had run out of notebook paper.

Looking at the orangutans and armaments printed together, I wondered what it would be like to come with a groups of artists or writers into the galleries, to play with a show like this. If I were teaching a creative writing course near here, I'd bring the students -- the way one of my grad school professors brought my class on field trips to stimulating places.

The sail-cloth, and the abundance, gives a feel for the variety of life and a kind of evolutionary adventure. Carrera seems to collect specimens, like the jars in the "Octagon Room" next door. The variety generates power. Find a current between anchor flukes and narwhals and echidnas, and what could it power?

In "A Humament," on the other hand, Tom Phillips pulls a new world out of an apparently stuffy Victorian novel.

I started in the middle by accident, and the scenes I began with drew me, especially the most recent draft, his fifth edition.

He will fill in most of a page with color and choose a handful of words, which will mean something entirely different, and usually more direct, than they did in the original book. He uses color and design -- Islamic tile, hypnotic zig-zag, simplified landscape perspective -- to highlight the scene in different ways, and against the color or darkness those few words stand out.

Comparing them to the original, I felt them refreshingly spare. The original book enforces that feeling -- it's wordy, over-crowded and involved, like a man wearing too many layers of clothing in a train carriage. In comparison, the man and woman walking on the moor and lying by the gorse bushes feel stripped bare.

I found the beginning and found it more abstract -- as though the new story he is telling immersed him as he went on and gave him momentum. Like the Phoenix project, "A Humament" shows a work in progress. It shows the making as well as the final form. When I begin reading at that sky-blue page, I can feel and smell the wind in the heather. I can feel it more, I think, because I can see what it blew away.

The day I first saw "Oh, Canada" last summer, I remember thinking that I could imagine a writer-in-residence at Mass MoCA finding material for months of stories. I had been looking through an egg-shaped hole in the wall at Mitchell Wiebe's painting of a young man with his arms plunged to the elbow in a broth of carnival-colored spirits, as though he was washing his shirts in daydreams. I could write a volume to find out who he is, and another on the shadow of Terrance Houle's buffalo.

On this visit, when I left reluctantly at closing time, I left with the feeling that if I sat here, it would help me think.

And as I sit thinking of the "Phoenix" project, the perseverance and pain and sheer immensity of it hit me as hard as a drill press or a poem.


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