Xu Bing’s Mythological Work the Phoenixes
Xu Bing is a contemporary innovative artist who works with non art-materials, creating installations to portray historical poignant messages within China’s cultural revolutions and development, whilst also addressing significant contemporary issues. Xu Bing’s artwork that specifically conveys such social issues across time is the 12 ton each mythological birds, ‘The Phoenix’s 2012’. With China’s focus on wealth and expansion, The ‘Phoenixes represent the other side of success and bring to life the debris left behind development. They are monumental in size, with an appearance of strength, yet holding elements of fragility and a precarious existence. This reflects the migrant labourers and workers who were the backbone of China’s development.
The Phoenixes are made out of raw, found materials that are assemblage. They were originally an installation that was site-specific’ for a glass atrium at the base of a new building designed by the architect Cesar Pelli for the World Financial Centre in Beijing’s central business district. The materials used by Xu can be defined as recyclable rubbish or objects, found on ‘that’ construction site. ‘The Phoenixes are gnarly, enormous and ferocious installations, with heads that are industrial jackhammers and feathers made from shovels’ Case Study. There is plastic green accordion tubing that adds to their luxuriantly long tails. The numerous found objects that make this almighty bird look so ferocious, are demolition debris, steel beams, tools, and remnants of the daily lives of migrant labourers. They also have twinkling LED lights to make them look as celestial as they look trashy. The Phoenixes together weigh about 20 tons, and measure between 90 to 100 feet each. At first glance this monumental artwork appears intimidating and confronting, but closer inspection allows the fragility and complexity to become the focal point. Adapting to the enormity allows the viewer to translate the interesting quotidian and found objects. They are able to see the contrasting relationship of sweet and bitter within the phoenixes. "In Chinese culture, the phoenix symbolizes the hopes and desires of a better future, even when those hopes are not necessarily realizable," Xu Bing told China Daily… In the West, the phoenix signifies rising from the ashes of destruction, and that mythology doesn't exist in China. He is clever in encouraging us to merge those meanings.”(usa.chinadaily.com). The Phoenix is noted to represent unrealized hopes and dreams. Xu wanted to show his Phoenixes in America and was limited in finding an indoor space large enough. St John The Divine in New York was a perfect location.
Xu Bing created these installations with a handful of talented people in differentiating titles featuring engineering and ingenuity. This work was put together over 4 years 2008-2012, it was a long and hard process for Xu Bing and his team. The ‘Phoenix’s have an intimate connection with the migrant workers in hard labour. Xu accepted the job due to the migrant labourers working on the glass atrium site. Xu was having a tour of the building when he was first asked to create the installation for the skyscrapers. It was an immediate reaction as soon as he saw the state the migrant workers were living in. Xu decided to create a work based on recognising the hard work the migrants do and how little they receive and the state of living conditions they endure when there is so much wealth in China. Xu represents this by using readymade materials found on the construction sites in Beijing. "This work carries with it a flavour of China - the smell and the realities of the country today. It is full of concern about the lowest levels of Chinese society, and it's my way of acknowledging the practice of very poor people using the lowest materials to dress themselves with great self-respect.” Xu Bing.
Xu creates installation based of the idea of materialist possessions don’t have to cost the most to be the most valuable, just like in society a man is not defined on the thickness of his wallet, a man is defined by his values and beliefs. "That is the heart of Chinese folk art: using the cheapest materials to create something that is unrealizable in daily life." Xu Bing expressed that when he walked into the site, Xu immediately felt like a bird trapped in a bird cage. Xu was horrified at the state of the migrant workers conditions that lay beneath the wealth of China. With the mixture of feelings that Xu Bing felt on the tour, he came to the conclusion that the mythological Phoenixes were the perfect symbolism for this project. The Phoenixes are a well-known tale in the Chinese cultural tradition, they represent the idea of recycling based on the aspect of rebirth. With the Phoenix’s elaborate beauty, it reigns over the feathered world. “As a supernatural bird, the phoenix embodies the five virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity”. Yahoo Answers.
The work is a reminder to viewers that China is reliant and built on the work of lower classes and labourers, who are the backbone of China. The work also embodies the concept that things aren’t what they seem, a secret hidden beneath the surface of every step in China’s history. Reminding the wealth of China on the labour of unseen workers. Xu’s choice to use demolition and construction waste undermines progress and transformation of the city, the work acts as a constant reminder of the rawness, of the social disparities, and of the mistreatment workers.
All these themes are in the conceptual intentions behind “Books From The Sky”. This artwork was a direct representation of the breakdown in communication from the communists government in the lead up to the Tiananmen Square Pro Democratic protest. It is this piece that made it obvious to him that art can evoke dissimilar responses if it addresses a current or previous issue. The sensitive themes confronted here are the value of traditional culture in a modern society, the reliability of knowledge, and the pointlessness of existence. Xu Bing installations are nearly always directly connected to contemporary issues and explore beliefs and customs of his traditional cultural. Xu’s artwork “Where does the dust collect itself” was a project directly related to 9/11, an emotionally provocative topic. Xu is informing viewers of the emotional impact experienced as a result of 9/11. Xu used non-at materials, in fact he collected dust from the streets of Chinatown, NY in aftermath of Sept. 11.
Xu Bing’s artwork can hold a multi layered conceptual intention but the theme that mostly reached out to viewers, was the concern Xu had for the migrant workers living in the darkness of China. Their living conditions are beyond unbearable. The men work so hard during the day to go back to the dirty tents, full of rubbish, in the shadows of the construction sites. They had been slaving all day to only receive below minimum wage. They left their families to come to the city to earn money but instead have been forgotten in the rubbish. The way that Xu has created a work that is a reminder of the breakdown between the wealth and the poor, Xu is kind of activist in the artwork, just like when he was part of the Tiananmen Square incident. “Art must confront the questions of today” Xu Bing.
Exhibitied: Xu Bing Phoenix, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, USA
Materials: construction debris, light emitting diodes
Website: www.xubing.com Xu Bing’s Official Website
27 and 28 meters in length, 8 meters in width, more than 24 tonnes together.