NORTH ADAMS - Steamed across the Pacific in 16 semitrailer loads, Xu Bing's “Phoenix,” which has been controversial in China, has received a warm welcome at Mass MoCA, where it will be on display through October 2013. The two phoenixes, 27 and 30 meters long and created from materials and debris taken from construction sites in China, symbolize the country's social and economic changes over the last few decades.
Xu was born in Chongqing, China in 1955, and raised in Beijing. In the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside north of Beijing, where he taught drawing as part of the government's reeducation program. Between 1977 and 1987 he studied and then taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he is currently vice president.
Known best for his innovative and confrontational uses of calligraphy, Xu seeks to challenge our perceptions, sometimes by combining elements of different languages or using characters themselves as compositional tools. All of his work reflects an intension to make us reconsider our relationship to the things, such as language, that surround us in daily life and shape our worldview.
The exhibition will include the newest in Xu's “Backround Stories” (a series of large reproductions of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, created using the shadows of plant material); a book, video and other ephemera collected from throughout of the project; and for a separate piece, titled “1st Class,” 500,000 cigarettes have been arranged either filter-side-up or tobacco-side-up, to create the impression of an enormous tiger skin rug.
Following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Xu came under scrutiny from the Chinese government for his work “Book from the Sky,” which consisted of books and scrolls filled with elegant but meaningless printed characters. In search of greater artistic freedom, Xu accepted a position as honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin in 1990, and later enrolled at the University of South Dakota to study bookmaking.
In 1993 Xu moved to New York City where he became known as part of a generation of western-influenced Chinese contemporary artists that includes Ai Weiwei and Cai Guoqiang (Cai's work was shown at Mass MoCA in 2004). Also during that time, China was experiencing huge social and economic changes due to its shift toward capitalism. When Xu returned to China in 2008 to begin work on what would become the Phoenix Project, many parts of his country had changed beyond recognition.
Originally commissioned for the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing, Xu's colossal phoenixes pay homage both to the traditional hutong (alleyway) neighborhoods that are disappearing to make way for new development, and to the migrant workers whose labor has helped sustain China's rapid economic growth since the 1980s.
When Xu encountered the site, which was under construction, “he was amazed,” said Joe Thompson, director of Mass MoCA and curator of the exhibit. “The pace of the transformation, the difference between the glittery, very beautiful, elegant and rich skyscrapers and the conditions on the ground that preceded it, and the conditions of the workers struck him as dramatic.”
Xu entered into a two-year collaboration with many of the workers who helped build the CCTV Headquarters and other buildings in the city, and with several assistants and acquaintances. The two birds, named Feng and Huang (”fenghuang” is the Chinese word for “phoenix,” and represents the pairing of both the male and female birds), were “a monument, in some ways, to what had been before,” Thompson said.
The raw, rough materials Xu chose for the birds stood in contrast to the sharp, smooth surfaces of the development projects, suggesting the turbulence of cultural transformation, but also the potential for the unseen elements of progress (the waste, grit and sweat) to harmonize with and complement its more public, glittery aspects. Xu's intention was not only to challenge the public face of development, but for the birds and the buildings to complement and be reflected in each other.
In China the phoenix represents love, fertility and imperial power, among many other things. But Xu was also aware of the idea of rebirth and renewal that the phoenix represents in Western cultures. “Because of his interest in crossover languages, I know that he had both sets of mythologies in mind when he picked the phoenix, this idea of coming back,” Thompson said.
The CCTV Headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Sheeren, and completed in 2012, serves largely as a symbol of China's economic achievement, and its construction was timed to coincide with global spotlight of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Chinese investor who commissioned the work eventually became aware that the birds conveyed a not-so-subtle degree of social critique, “and dropped the project like a hot potato,” said Thompson.
Largely through the volunteerism of the workers and his own determination, Xu finished the project in 2010, but it so far has shown only briefly in China. After spending less than a week at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, the birds were to be displayed at the front gates of the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghai, but at the last minute they were mysteriously moved to a more isolated location where they stayed only briefly.
Meanwhile, Thompson had read about the project and become interested. “The size of the phoenixes happened to correspond nicely to our gallery,” he said. “We had been in discussion with Xu Bing about doing a project for several years, having met him in China Interestingly enough he had made a project in North Adams, using the large press up at the Beaver Mill before. So he had been here in a completely different mode eight or nine years ago,” Thompson said.
With its working-class, industrial roots, and large indoor spaces, Mass MoCA is in some ways an ideal location for “Phoenix.” Occupying the buildings of the former Sprague Electric Company, it not only mirrors the industrial sculpture facility in Beijing where the project was created, it also is itself an example of the reappropriation of things left behind by a changing world.
The large wooden crates that the birds arrived in, and which form a barrier that visitors must navigate when entering Building 5, are a reminder that the birds themselves are migrants, estranged from their place of birth and merely stopping over for a while before continuing on their way. The crates also contribute to the project's spirit of transformation and rebirth, by using common materials in a way that both honors and elevates their everyday function.
Like Xu himself and countless others around the world, the phoenixes have left their home to find freedom and connection elsewhere, while continuing to represent the most relevant and genuine aspects of their culture.
The Phoenix Project will be on display at Mass MoCA through Oct. 31. Info: massmoca.org.