Wood, Light and Steel from Ash: Xu Bing’s Phoenixes
Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
March 1, 2014 to January 2015
1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at 112th Street)
New York, 212 316 7540
Phoenix (2008-10) is the newest project in New York by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, who previously lived in the city for 18 years before returning to China in 2008. Installed in the nave of Saint John the Divine’s Gothic Revival cathedral, two monumental sculptures, in the form of mythical birds, soar 18 feet above the floor. They are composed entirely of materials and tools from construction sites around Beijing. Xu has explained, in various print and video interviews, that he hit upon the idea after he was commissioned to create a sculpture for the glass atrium of a building in Beijing’s central business district. During his visit to the construction site he witnessed firsthand the harsh working conditions of the migrant laborers and decided to use salvaged building materials to bring attention to them. The developers requested making the sculptures more aesthetically pleasing by encasing them in crystal, but the artist refused. As a result, he lost the commission. Barry Lam, the president of a major computer company in Taiwan, eventually purchased the artworks. Before coming to Saint John the Divine, Phoenix was displayed in the Today Art Museum in Beijing, the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and MassMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts last year.
At first sight, the massive scale of the two sculptures strikes the viewer with awe, just like the shiny new buildings cropping up around Beijing (and New York). Further examination of Phoenix leads to the discovery that the creatures have been brought to life through dirty, rusty, commonplace items, wielded by laborers toiling in an environment far from shiny or new. As creatures born, according to legend, from the ashes of fire, Xu’s phoenixes stand in for those grand examples of Beijing architecture, and succeed in packing a powerful punch in terms of conveying its message, one of Xu’s strongest political statements to date.
Phoenix is best understood within the theme of metamorphosis, which preoccupied Xu after moving to New York in 1990. In 1997, he invented a new writing system by fusing elements of the English and Chinese languages. Although his words look like Chinese characters, they are comprised of English letters. His audience was invited to learn this “unified” language in an environment resembling a traditional calligraphy classroom, complete with manuals, writing tools and desks. The whole project was entitled New English Square Word Calligraphy. Xu’s Living Word installations (2001-2002), including one exhibited in Washington, D.C., visualized the word “bird” taking flight from floor to ceiling. Each element was either a modern Chinese character, an ancient pictogram, an animal form, or Xu’s own square-word calligraphy. Viewed as a whole, the sculptures evoked the process of morphing from one form to the next. Closest in concept to Phoenix is the artist’s Background Story, an ongoing series begun in 2004. Approaching frosted glass panes, the viewer first sees reprisals of famous classical landscape paintings. Upon coming closer and looking at the verso, one realizes how the brushstrokes are composed of debris both natural and manmade, such as leaves, branches and discarded paper. Background Story masterfully translates, in literal terms, the classical conception of the brushstroke as a representation of the energy and essence of nature and the Universe.
Like Background Story, Phoenix seeks to reveal the humble yet profound origins of creativity, but it does not have Background Story’s transitional stage, facilitated in the latter by the viewer’s movement from the front to the back of the glass panes. The idea of metamorphosis is also not as clear in Phoenix as it was in Living Word. The white lights lining the birds unify the composition, but emphasize stasis. Xu’s idea to imbue his majestic creatures with an element of ugliness is brilliant, and he could have pushed this further. Unfortunately, the choice to install Phoenix within Saint John the Divine further diminishes the impact of its original message by tipping the balance in favor of beauty and grandeur. It also encourages the impression that the sculpted birds are divine. This might induce the viewer to forget about those migrant workers toiling on the ground.
Ultimately, the original site would have been the best place for these sculptures, as they would have reminded visitors of the building’s genesis. On the other hand, temporarily nesting in locations not quite suited to them aptly reflects the plight of Chinese migrant workers, who are forced by poverty to leave the comfort of home for work. Phoenix certainly offers substantial food for thought to make the pilgrimage to Saint John the Divine worthwhile.