When I read that Xu Bing’s latest art installation, Phoenix, was showing at MASS MoCA (a museum housed in a former textile mill that specializes in large art installations), I nearly fell out of my chair. Art rock star.
I studied Xu’s work in a Chinese Art History class in graduate school. His 1988 installation, A Book From the Sky, that included a 4,000 character fabricated “vocabulary” displayed as billowing texts on fabric attached like book sails to the ceiling along with hand bound books scattered on the floor and news panels lining the walls. The piece a was poetic fabrication of text and meaning that blended the old with the new. The way he transforms materials, meaning, language, Chinese cultural history contextualized my view of contemporary art.
Two weekends ago, we trekked to North Adams to see Xu’s exhibit. Several works are included in Phoenix, although the two 12-ton birds built from materials (steel rebar, shovels, gloves, and more) salvaged from construction sites in urban China are the main attraction.
A traditional Chinese landscape “painting” (made from twigs, moss, and natural materials instead of paint inside an illuminated wall panel) leads the show and is followed by a corridor of shipping crates which opens up into a football field-sized space where the birds hang. They are internally lit and suspended mid-air inside a light drenched building—the male Phoenix Feng measures 90 feet long, while the female Huang reaches 100 feet in length, beak to steel tail feathers.
Phoenix reveals the intricate relations between labor, history, commercial development, economic class and the rising wealth in modern China. Along the back wall of the room, a shelf exhibits a brown paper book telling the story behind the making of Phoenix.
Displayed in the adjoining room is a video showing how Phoenix was assembled. The final two pieces (originally part of Xu’s 2011 1st Class: Tobacco Project) follow upstairs.
On the main section of the floor, a fake tiger (a well-known symbol of Colonialism and luxury in Asia) skin made from 500,000 filtered cigarettes set up so the white papers and tan filters reference the animal’s stripes. Source materials used in the piece (1st Class cigarettes, cartons, and wrappers) fan out in one corner of the room.
The tiger references the double-edged history of global tobacco trade as an economic boom and health bust, yet another investigation into material transformation and meaning over time.
If you happen to be in New England, it’s a show worth seeing (plus there’s Legos in the Kidspace when you finish taking in the art and don’t forget to pack a small bag of potato chips in your bag for a salty pick-me-up). For those who can’t get to the museum, this short video clip will give you an idea of the scale of the piece.