A highlight of this gray and snowy February was visiting Mass MoCA for the art museum’s free day a few weeks ago. After packing the car with baby and stroller we drove off through the hills of western MA to North Adams the day after we got 17 inches of white, powdery snow. What a beautiful drive! The wheels of the car were hushed as they turned on top of a packed layer of snow on the streets while sun shone down on pure white, reflecting sparkles like crystals.
The most beautiful and interesting piece of art of the day was Xu Bing’s Phoenix installation. This is the kind of creation that makes your jaw drop in wonder as you enter the huge space and catch your first glimpse of the two Phoenixes. Masses of metal and bamboo - construction and building debris from building sites in Beijing - defy logic, suspended in the air from the ceiling as if flying. Rubbish is arranged artfully and becomes poetry: beautiful and harmonious. The two phoenixes are almost 100 feet long and weigh over 20 tons in all.
Originally the works were commissioned by a real estate developer for a glass atrium connecting two World Financial Towers in Beijing. While visiting the site the artist was impacted by the contrast between the raw, gritty realities of the laborers and their living and working conditions and the building's splendor and opulence. This reality reflects the truth of two worlds living side by side in Chinese society. Wealth and excess contrasts with the stark and gritty.
One of the things I find particularly interesting about this work is it’s connection to the creation of a societies folk art: everyday people creating works of meaning with materials that are at hand.
Xu Bing uses found materials at the construction site and builds the sculptures with the migrant laborers, the same laborers responsible for the growing skyline in Beijing. His muse is the mythical symbol of the male and female phoenix.
“...this multifaceted symbol which has signified a multitued of meanings throughout history, from imperial power and wealth, to prosperity, fertility and eternity, The artist was particularly attracted to an image of the phoenix from the Han Dynasty, when the bird was often featured in male/female pairs like those now suspended from MASS MoCA’s beams. Steel rebar, girders, bamboo, scaffolding, conduit, shovels, hard hats, gloves and other evidence of labor (demolition) form the body, feathers and talons of Xu’s interpretation of these mythical birds. The heads of both the male Feng and the female Huang are made from the nose of an industrial jack hammers, a contemporary translation of their strength and ferocity (historical images of the phoenix often show the powerful bird with a snake in its talons or beak).
As an image, Xu’s birds are a potent comment on wealth and excess - and also on the progress of modern society and the debris often left in the wake of progress.”
(- MASS MoCA, text by Susan Cross)
I'm always especially interested in a creation when it's connected to folk art traditions. Something pure happens when the playing ground is level and art is made for something other than the enjoyment of the elite.
I was only able to take a couple pictures before my camera’s battery ran out. One is the header to this blog entry and the other follows...
I found these images to share online:
I wish I saw the sculptures lit up at night with the LED lights that outline these pieces. I might try and get back to the museum to see this before the exhibit travels on down to NYC. I believe the next place it will inhabit is a cathedral! I'd like to see that too!