“The king of birds.” —Xu Bing (1955– )
The bird that Mr. Xu is talking of is the phoenix. There are two of them flying about the nave of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights (1047 Amsterdam Avenue at West 112th Street). A male, Feng, and his companion, a female, Huang spread their wings in the direction of the cathedral’s great bronze entrance doors. These fantastical creatures are the creation of Mr. Xu.
Phoenixes, representing luck, unity, power and prosperity, have had a place in every dynasty throughout China’s history. They have been portrayed as benevolent, gentle creatures. This duo, created from the discarded material of China’s booming commercial development, illustrate the country’s grimmer and grittier present.
“They bear countless scars, having lived through great hardship, but still have self-respect. In general, the phoenix expresses unrealized hopes and dreams.”
—Xu Bing, his affection for the Phoenix is clear
Mr. Xu has seen firsthand the numerous changes to wash over China during the four decades. His father was turned out from his position as a professor of history at Peking University during the Cultural Revolution. In 1975 the younger Mr. Xu was sent from the city to the country for two years. Thirteen years later he moved to the United States, settling in New York, to take exercise of his artistic freedom. He has maintained his connection with New York. He considers it one of his hometowns because he lived in the East Village for six years, and in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg for 12. Mr. Xu, a conceptual artist working in such diverse media as calligraphy, ink painting and installations, received a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1999.
The project that resulted in the two phoenixes—weigh six tons each and measuring 90 (Huang) and 100 (Feng) feet long—began in 2008. Mr. Xu was commissioned to create a sculpture for a glass atrium that was part of a new building designed by architect Cesar Pelli; it was a component of the World Financial Center in Beijing’s main business district.
“When I first visited the building site, I had a sense of shock. It was impossible to imagine that with all the modern technology today, the building was constructed with such low-tech methods.” —Xu Bing
Mr. Xu was horrified by the conditions under which the migrant workers, who were constructing the center, labored. He had a physical reaction to what he witnessed, saying his skin began to quiver. This set his creative powers in motion. For the glass atrium he would create two phoenixes, making the mythical birds rise, not from the ashes but from the debris and workers’ tools that were salvaged from the construction site.
Mr. Xu was commissioned only a few months before the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time the government banned all trucking and construction to ensure cleaner air for the Beijing Olympics; the secession of building in the capital curtailed Mr. Xu’s source of material to create his project. The building’s developers were concerned that the bird sculptures sent a message about waste that they did not want to call attention to. They asked Mr. Xu to give the birds a makeover, to soften the sight of the junk with a crystalline exterior.
Because Mr. Xu would not alter his concept, the developers rejected his birds. This setback did not deter him. The birds were constructed at a factory on Beijing’s fringe. The process was meant to take four months to complete; instead, it took two years. Mr. Xu worked from drawings, models and computer-generated diagrams. Do not be deceived by the naïve quality of the art; every bit, from beak to tail feather, was carefully planned.
Throughout its history St. John the Divine has used art, live performances and lectures to create a conversation concerning current events. Mr. Xu’s Phoenix is the latest in this ongoing dialogue through art.
“This beautiful, even sacred installation has transformational powers. This is not just a critique about laborers in China; it is about a subject that affects us all. It’s about fair pay and human wages for all people.”
—the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, the dean of St. John the Divine
Before alighting in New York, the birds were perched at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Using a converted factory building, they were on view for nearly a year, beginning in 2012. Before that they were on view at Beijing’s Today Art Museum and at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.
Feng and Huang can be seen during the cathedral’s regular hours, 7:30 AM to 6 PM daily. They will be on view through February 2015. No tickets or reservations are needed to visit the exhibition.