20 Ton Phoenix Sculpture from China Finds Temporary Home at MassMOCA
Two mammoth sculptures by noted Chinese artist Xu Bing are now on view at MASS MoCA in North Adams, the centerpiece of a major new exhibition. Though originally commissioned as site-specific art for a financial center in Beijing, they are finding special relevance in this Massachusetts mill town.
As this art exhibition is put together, it looks and feels like a construction site. A few forklifts are in action, and several workers in hardhats are pulling on chains strung through pulleys, hoisting a wooden platform holding a large metal frame. They're putting in place some of the final tail feathers of an enormous, nearly one hundred foot-long sculpture of a phoenix, one of two now suspended from the ceiling of a onetime factory turned art museum.
The two birds, all twenty tons worth, are fashioned from leftover building materials and debris salvaged from construction sites in Beijing. Coils of steel, welding masks, discarded wrenches, and bits of bamboo scaffolding are fused into two sculptures that are majestic despite their raggedy bits and pieces.
Phoenix, by internationally known Chinese artist Xu Bing, was previously on display for only a few weeks in 2010, in Beijing and Shanghai. This is its first time out of China.
After a preview tour of the exhibition, Xu—who conceived of the project after returning to Beijing in 2008 after living in the US for eighteen years—says he was inspired by the sight of the rural poor emigrating to cities to build grand skyscrapers.
"If I had stayed in New York and I spent my days in Soho or Chelsea to go to gallery shows, I would have never made a work like this."
That's Xu, speaking through assistant and translator Jesse Robert Coffino.
The new exhibition coincides with another major show of Xu's work opening in Washington, D.C at the Sackler Gallery in April. Carol Huh, curator of contemporary Asian art there, says she's intrigued by the cultural translation at play—a work with such site-specific meaning moving from China to the US.
"What I find interesting are some of the opportunities to tease out some of the culturally specific references intended by the artist, and to perhaps see if we can elucidate a bit some of the history that an artist might be drawing upon."
Phoenix originally commented on the dichotomy between Beijing's glittering skyline and the lives of the workers who built it. Here in its first US appearance, it takes on different resonances, Xu says.
"It's a huge work and so we spent a lot of time looking for venues to show the work, and in that process we realized that at each place it's shown it takes on new meanings."
MASS MoCA occupies a sprawling series of converted brick warehouses that once housed the Sprague Electric Company, in the heyday of this once industrially-minded city. Xu says that's a rich and relevant history.
"When we bring the phoenix here, MASS MoCA has this very long and important history in the sort of flourishing industrialization of America."
"And in many ways this phoenix is the product of a huge factory or of a huge site of production."
Phoenix, along with several other of Xu's works, is on display through October, 20-13.