This is the most amazing thing,” said the middle-aged lady in sneakers and polo shirt.
Standing with her friends at the entrance to Building 5, this woman wasn’t a museum tour guide. She wasn’t an art historian. But, on a recent rainy Monday afternoon, she couldn’t wait to show her friends “The Phoenix Project.”
When the monumental artwork by Xu Bing, one of China’s most prominent contemporary artists, was installed at MASS MoCA last fall, it was the first appearance of the massive sculptural work outside China.
For the viewer, experiencing “Phoenix” in Building 5, a gallery that’s as long as a football field, is an event you may never forget.
From the entrance, the artwork is hidden behind a maze of huge wooden packing crates. Then, as you turn a corner, a pair of big birds appear. The male, Feng, is 90 feet long, and the female, Huang, 100 feet from head to tail; both are suspended by heavy chains from the ceiling.
‘Xu Bing: Phoenix’
WHERE: MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass.
WHEN: Through Oct. 27. In July and August, museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Gallery tours: 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $15; $10 for students; $5, children 6-16; free, kids under 6
MORE INFO: 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org
Triumphant and ferocious, gritty and yet elegant, they are superbly and astoundingly crafted.
After the first sighting, your eyes and brain begin to absorb these facts: This pair of birds weighs 20 tons and is made entirely of trash and debris harvested from construction sites in Beijing.
Xu Bing, who spent two years making the birds with a crew of workers, calls these materials the “architectural excrement” of skyscrapers: bamboo poles, wheels, metal panels, metal pipes, a plastic tarp, fans and fuel canisters.
The curved metal scoops from dozens of shovels are precisely lined up and welded to create the illusion of feathered wings. Red wrenches form the tips of those wings. At the necks of the birds, metal is impossibly curled, as if it was paper filigree, and the comb that crowns one bird is made of many bright red hard hats that once protected the heads of skyscraper construction workers.
Remember, back in 1977, when you first saw the movie “Star Wars” on the big screen, and you were awestruck by those closeups of the underside of space ships? Viewing the bellies of Xu Bing’s birds is a similar experience.
At night, they apparently look like constellations in the sky, as L.E.D. lights that are imbedded in their bodies shine into the darkness.
The symbolism in “Phoenix” is limited only by one’s imagination; but labor and environmental issues, Chinese history, Western influences on China, cultural and societal shifts in a country undergoing rapid growth in wealth and power, are just a few that come to mind.
In Asian mythology, the Fenghuang, a combination of the male and female birds, appears in places that are blessed with peace, prosperity and happiness. Across time and cultures, there are the other meanings of the phoenix. To the Greeks and early Christians, the bird that goes up in flames and then is reborn again is a sign of hope.
Because of its scale, “The Phoenix Project” was controversial and had to overcome government red tape and financial challenges. The process was like “nine deaths and two births,” Xu Bing says.
On long shelves that wind along the wall underneath the birds, the "Phoenix" tale is told in a storyboard that viewers can read, page by page. (A special bound version is also for sale in the museum shop for $29.95)
Victims of revolution
Born in 1955, Xu Bing was raised in Bejing, the son of two academics at the University of Peking. During the Cultural Revolution, his father was jailed, and he and his mother were forced into “re-education.” Xu Bing lived in a remote village, caring for crops and animals.
Later, he studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and became an instructor there.
In 1987, his “A Book from the Sky,” a room-sized installation of scrolls, books and printed wall panels brought his talents to the attention of the art world in China and the United States.
“A Book from the Sky” appeared at the University at Albany’s University Art Museum in 1996; and in 2000, the artist was UAlbany’s juror for the Mohawk Hudson Regional Exhibition.
Xu Bing, who lives and works in both Beijing and New York City, often works on projects and themes for many years, and at MASS MoCA, “Phoenix” is accompanied by four smaller installations: “Background Story,” a large light box with an image that mimics a traditional Chinese scroll landscape; “1st Class,” a rug made of cigarettes that was created for his “Tobacco Project” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; “The Character of Characters,” an animation video with moving Chinese characters and strokes representing the objects in the landscape; and “Book from the Ground,” an ongoing, interactive project in which Xu Bing invites the viewer to explore language using universal images like the ones found in air travel.
Scent of cigarettes
In the upper level gallery where you can look down upon “Phoenix,” you’ll catch the scent of 500,000 cigarettes before you actually get a closeup look at what looks like an animal-shaped rug laid upon the floor.
In “1st Class,” named for a brand of cheap American smokes, cigarettes lean against each other, with color patterns based on whether they are placed with the filter end up or down. Cigarettes are part of daily life in China, where one-third of the world’s tobacco is produced and consumed. Xu Bing’s father died of lung cancer.
In the small darkened room that adjoins the Building 5 gallery, viewers can sit in chairs made from construction debris and watch a film about “The Phoenix Project.”
Xu Bing, who wears round black spectacles, tells us via English subtitles how he was moved when he visited Beijing construction sites and saw the harsh, crowded living conditions of the workers.
Joe Thompson, director of MASS MoCA, appears in the film, too, and reminds us that in the late 1800s, North Adams had a population of Chinese immigrants who worked in the shoe industry. In the 20th century, he continues, it was the migration of U.S. manufacturing to China that led to the closing of the sprawling factory that is now the home of MASS MoCA.
North Adams’ historic link to China is the reason MASS MoCA is committed to showing the works of Chinese artists.
“We honor that,” says Thompson.
But what does the artist say about today’s fast-paced industrialization of China?
“No one understands, not even the Chinese,” says Xu Bing.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or email@example.com.