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Xu Bing: Phoenix

April 30, 2014


When I visited the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the clothing referral, with my new camera phone, I took some photographs of the sculpture on exhibit by Chinese artist Xu Bing.

Xu is not a big fan of public art projects, but when people want to hire him to do one, he goes to the site and sees what sort of art he can envision there. He saw the working conditions of those on the site, who were essentially homeless, sleeping in encampments on the site, so he conceived of the idea of the feng and huang, the male and female versions of the Chinese phoenix legend, second only in importance to dragon legends.

In the story, the phoenix put out a great fire and lost all its feathers, so the birds he saved all gave him some of their own feathers. Xu decided to take the scrap material and make images of birds from them. The investors understood that he was sending up capitalism by doing so, but were perfectly fine with it until the crash in December 2007 and its economic ripples in 2008. Then they thought that the sculptures looked unfinished and insisted that Xu put a crystalline sheen on what they considered as a mere armature for the artwork, even though that was inconsistent with the original agreement. Xu ended his contract with the investors, and an art connoisseur in Beijing put up the money to finish the project.

It was subsequently exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts, which had the second largest (after San Francisco) influx of Chinese people in the entire United States, who moved there to work in an electronics factory that put the capacitor factory in the building that now houses the museum out of business.

The forepart of the feng:


The hind part of the feng:


Full body view of the feng from its rear left:


The tail of the feng and the head of the huang:Photo-0017

The front part of the huang:


The wings of the huang:


Detail of the tail of the huang:


Unfortunately, it is very difficult from the photographs I have taken to see clearly the component parts with which the phoenix was made, much less identify what they are. They seem to both have portions of ventilation systems in their necks. Parts look like hair dryers. I don’t have the construction or mechanical engineering knowledge to identify what most of the component parts are, and Xu may not either. Needless to say, seeing the fine details of how these sculptures were made makes viewing the exhibit in person essential to the full comprehension of Xu’s design and socioeconomic message.

It is on display at St. John the Divine until January 2015. Here is a link to the official site for the exhibit:

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