Xu Bing is one of the most important Chinese contemporary artists working today. The monumental amount of work and time it took to bring it to life is a fascinating topic, but once I saw the show, I realized that there was much more to the story. Like the story of Phoenixes rising from the ashes, its birth was indeed a miracle born from conflict, challenge and death. The story of the pair of birds weighing a total of 20 tons built over the period of 2008-2010 is controversial because the work in all of its dimensions challenged the gentrification and perceived cleansing of society that the government was engaged in prior to the 2008 summer Olympics. According to a report by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), 1.25 million people were forcibly relocated from their homes due to “Olympics-related redevelopment” with an another quarter million evictions expected before the games started during a period of breakneck economic growth.
The Phoenixes are made from refuse collected from the numerous construction sites in the area used to build the glut of new buildings that are quickly erupting. The bodies of the two birds measuring 95 feet long for the male figure Feng and 100 feet long for the female Huang, are shaped from rebar, bamboo scaffolding, shovels, conduit, hard hats, empty fire extinguishers and construction tools. While using the refuse from Beijing’s new building as well as the detritus of their migrant workers, the pieces conceptually paralleled the city’s redevelopment. Yet, the pieces were apparently too raw and evocative to be acceptable to the first funder. He found them too difficult and proposed to prettify the work by gilding them with gold leaf. Xu Bing refused, seeing his work as building on his artistic predecessors who used the simplest of materials, brush and ink. The upcycled waste was the means for him to illustrate his commentary on contemporary life in China. Xu Bing says about the work, “Labor creates wealth, and the mutilated and discarded tools that labor creates once again grow into the products of labor. It is only against this backdrop that the lack of compromise between the power of capital and Phoenix can find expression.”
Yet, despite his use of unwanted and discarded materials, Xu Bing also embraced the use of current technology. The work was modeled first using 3D printing. One stunning example on display, 58 inches and 61 inches in length and 14 inches deep illustrates one of the first examples of an artist using a 3D printer in developing their full scale work.
Xu Bing’s Phoenixes manifest a trans-biological potential lingering in consumer electronics waste and refuse landfills that are quickly piling up around the world. As more and more active and passive components, toys, structural materials and other waste are massed together in trash piles, the potential increases for accidental reorganization and interconnections to be made. From these momentary or permanent connections new forms can evolve in a niche in the evolving junk yard ecologies. Some have theorized that new art could emerge from a random triggering of logic chips to produce a provocative anti-logic component. This idea is paralleled by the subversive LED illuminated Phoenixes which neighbors of MASS MoCA say at night provide a beautiful celestial beacon.
The exhibition NINE DEATHS, TWO BIRTHS: XU BING’S PHOENIX PROJECT is showing concurrently at the Freer-Sackler Smithsonian Museum’s of Asian Art, where visitors can see more of the 3D printed studies he made for the “Phoenix Project.”
The Phoenixes will continue on to be exhibited at additional locations so that more people will have a chance to see them. After this exhibition at MASS MoCA, the work will go on to be shown at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
Through October 27
Through September 2
Freer-Sackler Smithsonian Museum