'Phoenix' born in a rising city


NORTH ADAMS --Two birds begin to open their wings. They are 90 and 100 feet long, each one as big as a blue whale. They are made from the refuse of skyscrapers -- fledged with shovel blades and crowned with red loops of steel. Wrenches and hooks form feathers under their wings.

Chinese artist Xu Bing, vice president of China's Central Academy of Fine Arts, has brought his "Phoenix" project to Mass MoCA.

In China, the Phoenix is a symbol of beauty and of imperial power, and Xu has built his from the detritus of the construction and industrialization sweeping through his country.

When he returned to Beijing, after living in America for 16 years, he was shocked to see how the city and the nation had changed, said Susan Cross, who co-curated the exhibits with Mass MoCA's director, Joe Thompson.

Xu has talked about visiting construction sites, Cross said, and seeing the bare conditions of the workers, and the bare economics of their lives, in contrast to the wealth of the buildings.

A group of workers stayed with him for much of the two years the Phoenix took to build. Walking around the 100-foot-long birds now, Cross can see the labor it took to imagine it, to design and develop the birds and to put them together.

Before he left China, in 1990, and after he returned to China in 2006, Xu made large-scale works that required a team to complete. But the Phoenix, he said, is different.

"Generally, a team executes the artist's idea, and if the artist is able to maintain control, then the quality of the work will not be effected," he said in an email from Beijing, translated by Jesse Coffino. "But the ‘Phoenix' team was unique, as it was primarily made up of migrant laborers who had come to Beijing. ... And from working day and night with them, I came to feel their innermost need for respect and their wisdom and talents -- in particular, their understanding and sense of the nature of all kinds of materials."

At Mass MoCA, around the giant birds, a storyboard book explains the two-year struggle to make the Phoenixes. It shows the close team that formed around the work, and the ways they played with ideas and designs, the ways their knowledge shaped the work.

"In the later stages of production, there were times when there seemed to be no distinction between author, artist assistant and migrant laborer among the team," Xu said by email. "Everyone brought their thoughts and efforts together as a group.

"The emotional investment and real life participation of the workers, just like these objects that had been used for labor, were made physically manifest within the work."

That Xu should build a team of people who might otherwise never have met, and who talk and learn from each other, seems to come naturally from his own work. For decades, he has explored communication -- and has made the unintelligible familiar.

At Mass MoCA, a "Second Chapter" exhibit focuses on his work with language. "Character of Characters," an animation, tells the history and form of Chinese pictograms.

In "Square Word Calligraphy," he has made a system of pictograms made from English words, that English speakers can read. Cross described the delight in the room as people came up to characters they thought would be strange and realized they could understand them.

Now, in "Book from the Ground," blending artwork, software and translation, Xu is shaping a language from international symbols.

He has taken signs from international sources, from airports to the internet -- and he is writing stories with them.

"All of his works tell a story," Cross said. In some of his art, a smooth presentation covers a deep and dense backstory.

In "Phoenix, "he's showing us the backstory," she said. She sees in it the tensions in China, as it becomes an industrial nation, as its middle class grows and struggling working class families migrate accross the country to get work.

"The reflective quality of this work creates both a direct and metaphorical relationship with the process of development and the accumulation of wealth in China," Xu said. "It looks at the substance behind the process of Chinese modernization."

"From within China's high-speed development," he said, "I saw a ‘Chinese fast-forward version' of hundreds of years of western modernization.

"The motivating force behind this fast-forward version comes from one or two hundred years of Chinese people yearning for western industrial modernization (a yearning for a higher standard of living) and the deeply ingrained philosophical views, ways of thinking and work habits of the Chinese people.

"The massive tension that is being produced by these two distinctly different value systems, the clash that is taking place within the larger psyche of contemporary China, has caused the country to steam-roll forward amidst a boundless energy that even the Chinese people themselves don't really understand."

Xu Bing explains myth's origins

"I discovered that because the phoenix is a non-existent bird, the needs of political power, the nobility and the people have endowed the phoenix with its content.

The phoenix originated around the Neolithic period. There is a white ceramic pot from approximately 7,400 (years) ago that is stamped on its top with a "mythical eastern bird." The phoenix of that period was not magnificent. It was more of a totemic symbol.

Since ancient times, the phoenix has been explained from the perspective of the theory of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, or in terms of the pursuit of perfect love, or as in this line of poetry:

"Shimmering with five colors, its song moving the eight winds, its breath attuned to the seasons and rains, the winged phoenix emperor arrives."

Ancient rulers often used the phoenix as a metaphorical symbol for imperial power, the character huang, which means "phoenix" was often substituted for the character huang, which means "emperor."

I like folk mythology that surrounds the phoenix, that there was once a great fire upon a mountaintop; the bird of paradise used all of its might to put out the flames, and in the process, lost its feathers. In a display of respect for this feat, the hundred birds of the animal kingdom pulled off their own feathers, one by one, and offered them.

And from this time on the bird of paradise became the most beautiful bird in the world--the phoenix.

My phoenix has both the ferocity of the pre-Han Dynasty phoenix and the beauty of the post-Han dynasty phoenix. It is not a symbol of noble power, but an embodiment of labor, a reincarnation of a pursuit of ideals.

Covered in scars, it uses the cheapest materials to dress itself up in beauty and self-respect; each of its feathers emits something vital, a vitality transmitted by each of the workers whose hands have come into contact with it.

The poignancy of the phoenix can be seen in myth -- that it "soars for a thousand miles, not perching until it finds a sycamore" is an expression of its resolve and tenacity and lofty bearing.

But my phoenix is not self-determined, rather it has been decided by "capital." Its original perch was intended to be in a skyscraper at the financial heart of Beijing's Central Business District, and it was formed from the excrement of the process of constructing this building. And I still feel that this is its most fitting long-term home.

But it can no longer return there. Where it finally ends up landing will also be decided by "capital."

Wherever these two huge and weighty phoenixes alight in China or American reveal another aspect of their "transformation." When they were placed outdoors there was a sense of flight; at the Shanghai World Expo, there was a sense of "one hundred birds paying homage to the phoenix" (an ancient Chinese saying) and at Mass MoCA it feels as if they have returned to the origins of capital, like it has come home.

It's like the Chinese saying, "you marry a chicken, you follow a chicken." You cannot say that this is not part of the poignancy of the phoenix."


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