What is Xu Bing’s gigantic Phoenix project?

Xu Bing – Phoenix, MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, USA, 2013, photo: Hideo Sakata

Introduction

Xu Bing is an internationally celebrated Chinese artist. He works in a couple of disciplines and materials but the most common is ink painting, printmaking, and calligraphy1. Xu has worked with pigs and silkworms2. Though, one of his well-known installations is a gigantic flying dragon titled Phoenix.

Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022
Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022, photo: Public Delivery

How was Phoenix created?

The installation features two monumental birds fabricated entirely from materials harvested from construction sites in urban China, including demolition debris, steel beams, tools, and remnants of the daily lives of migrant laborers.

Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022
Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022, photo: Public Delivery

The materials were all gathered by the migrant laborers themselves, who worked on a construction site. It is easy to notice the elements of the creatures’ form as you walk around the exhibition space. You will see jackhammers and shovels connected to hard hats, hoses, beams, and other cast-off materials.

Construction of Xu Bing's Phoenix
Construction of Xu Bing’s Phoenix

The internally illuminated 12-ton birds were suspended mid-air, dwarfing viewers. The male Phoenix Feng measures 90 feet long, while the female Huang reaches 100 feet in length, beak to (steel) tail feathers. It took Xu two years to collect and assemble. The whole project’s engineering is something that most people would term as impressive as the work itself.

3 min 32 sec

How Xu came up with the idea

In an interview, Xu gave a clear picture of how Phoenix’s whole idea came to pass. He said that in 2008 he was commissioned to create a permanent sculpture. This sculpture would be a formal atrium of the World Finance Centre in Beijing as designed by Cesar Pelli.

Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022
Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022, photo: Public Delivery

Xu went to the construction site and was shocked by the kind of labor and the working conditions. This made him extremely uneasy. He was struck by the reality of the impressive high rises built for the rich and how the lower and middle classes made them.

Xu Bing – Phoenix, MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, USA, 2013
Xu Bing – Phoenix, MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, USA, 2013, photo: Hideo Sakata

Now Xu got the idea to use the debris and the dirt to make something that would merge the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. Phoenix was the response to the unseen labor and harsh working conditions, which he thought were typified in the flawed edges of the sculptures’ forms.

Xu Bing - Phoenix, Shanghai Expo2010, Shanghai, China
Xu Bing – Phoenix, Shanghai Expo2010, Shanghai, China, 2010

Video: Xu Bing’s artist talk at MASS MoCA

1 h 5 min

Analysis

After spending numerous years away from his motherland after being born and raised there, upon returning, Xu Bing found a space undergoing rapid change, with most of it driven by toiling migrant workers. Bearing witness to the complex interconnection between labor, China’s history, economic development, and something beyond, he created Phoenix.

The two birds are not separate constructions, but they are linked. They are a linked vision of the renaissance and, at the same time, give an impression of the country’s propelled growth.

Xu Bing - Phoenix
Xu Bing – Phoenix (detail), MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, USA, 2013, photo: Hideo Sakata

The fable of this project is powerful and monumental. It shows self-sacrifice, destruction, regeneration, and hope. It is a beautifully crafted representation of the cultural evolution, history, and modernism of China. It is also a representation of the energy and strength of all those that participated. The main aim of this sculpture was to spur a cultural and architectural change in China.

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Phoenix at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine, New York, 2014

In 2004 Phoenix was installed in the nave of Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City. The project was precisely installed, carefully winding through the official openings of the cathedral. This holds the architecture to hold the birds in place. The birds were installed 20 feet above the ground.

The statues have lines of little lights running from their talons to tails and claws facing the ingress of the church. Much of the gradation of the sculptures might get lost when you enter the cathedral and see these sculptures. The details are hard to take in at first, but it’s easy to notice once you get close.

2 min 12 sec

The vision of the soft hoes of the light blurs some of the grittiness of the sculptures’ natural construction. The experience in this cathedral is moving. Don’t look at the sculpture as a simple object. It’s a collective effort of the materials and the human hands. That’s what stuns you in the spiritual space.

The installation opened with a celebratory afternoon of dance, dragon puppets, music, and circus acts. It also included the high wire legend Philippe Petit walking underneath the made mortals to music by Saxophonist Paul Winter.

A little about Xu Bing

The artist has used the debris as in this case before. He has once used a bicycle flattened by a tank in Tiananmen Square3 and dust from the 9/11 WTC destruction. Now his work, the Phoenix, got to the heart of the matter. He used the stuff of the global economic expansion to bring attention to humanity’s proclamation of immortality. Xu Bing is widely considered to be among the prominent Chinese artists of today.

Xu Bing – Phoenix, installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022
Xu Bing – Phoenix (detail), installation view, Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2022, photo: Public Delivery

All images by Xu Bing unless otherwise noted.

More by Xu Bing

Footnotes

  1. https://publicdelivery.org/xu-bing-book-from-the-sky/
  2. https://publicdelivery.org/sun-yuan-peng-yu-dogs-that-cannot-touch-each-other/#Two_other_works_were_removed_from_the_exhibition
  3. https://publicdelivery.org/tag/tiananmen-square/

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