Preparations to reveal the latest monumentally scaled displays in the galleries at MASS MoCA will soon come to a close as the newest, very eagerly awaited exhibit opens to the public on Wednesday, December 26. As the installation process moves quickly towards completion and public anticipation builds, change, as a prime and principal thematic component of the exhibit and its surrounding aura, also continues to build momentum and in importance.
“Xu Bing: Phoenix”, as it will open in its current incarnation once the changeover is complete in the vast, labyrinthine post-industrial, now iconic, contemporary art museum in North Adams, MA consists of three main works by Xu Bing.
The first, one sees immediately upon entering the Building 5 gallery space. Xu Bing, well-known for an adept and passionate approach to his work that combines a deep and abiding sense of tradition, as well as an inherent sense and desire to document and comment extensively on change and progress, has created a piece that not only harkens back to classical Chinese landscape painting from the early eighteenth century, specifically the Qing dynasty, but also exquisitely places the work in the here and now.
The piece, a twelve-foot high, towering lightbox scroll, greets the visitor ceremoniously upon entering the storied and cavernous space. Seen from the front, the piece gives the appearance of a sepia-toned, gently lit surface of organic calm and passive reflection. From the rear, behind the curtain, if you will, one sees the fluorescent tubes, plant material, and waste papers that enact the pleasurable illusion. Part of an ongoing series, which is a prevalent facet of Xu Bing’s working methods, “Background Story” utilizes materials gathered on site and as such, changes and is developed as a new work in the series for each exhibition space it is displayed in.
“1st Class”, a piece created as part of the 2011 exhibition, “Xu Bing: Tobacco Project”, will be shown in the mezzanine gallery, also part of Building 5, and located on the second floor beyond the exhibition’s focal points. Comprised of approximately 500,000 cigarettes that have their white papers and orange/tan filters carefully arranged and adhered to an oversized, yet lifelike, representation of a tiger-skin, the piece acts as a socio-economic commentary; the cigarettes and tiger-skin are both directly associated with and related to one another as status symbols in Chinese culture, yet there also exists a fair degree of irony and a juxtaposition of cultures as the cigarettes are all 1st Class, a U.S. discount brand.
Most prominent and by far the focal point and pre-eminent draw of the exhibit are the phoenixes themselves. The monolithic pair, weighing nearly 20 tons overall and each nearly 100 feet in length, hangs suspended from the two-story ceiling in their first “flight” outside of China. While displayed in China, the exhibit was seen in two separate venues, outdoors at the Today Art Museum in Beijing and then at Expo10 in Shanghai. Both instances were all too brief in duration, only a few weeks, so this installation will be the first time circumstances have been right for a fully realized showing.
Built entirely of construction and demolition materials, including steel rebar, bamboo scaffolding, conduit, shovels, hard hats, gloves, and other materials for the bodies and the nose of industrial jackhammers for the heads, the male Feng and female Huang symbolically soar as testifying witnesses to the rapid social and cultural changes that have recently taken place in China.
Since 1990, in the wake of the events in Tiananmen Square, and prior to the commissioning of these two pieces, Xu Bing had been living and working in the United States. During this time, Xu Bing built his international practice, showing extensively world wide as part of the new Chinese avant-garde. In 1994, Xu Bing was included in the 45th Venice Biennale.
After being commissioned for the works by a prominent real estate developer/collector and initial arrangements were made for the pieces to be designed and created, Xu Bing returned to China in 2007. Seeing the enormity of the changes that had taken place in his absence, most ostensibly the numerous freshly constructed and ostentatiously lavish skyscrapers populating the major urban centers, had a deeply profound effect on Xu Bing and guided his choice of materials and process for the creation of the new works.
Nesting birds often build their nests from, or at least often include, the cast off remains and otherwise easily procured bits and odds and ends of human existence. Xu Bing’s phoenixes seem to take this activity and concept a step beyond, as well as simultaneously somewhat reversed, as they are actually built from the remains of materials and tools used to build and destroy human “nests”. The creation of these pieces is determined by human endeavors to envision the project and then the vision of how to construct it is carried out, using the labor and materials associated with the creation and destruction of human nests, i.e. here the mythological nesting pair are created by humans from the circumstances of human nesting.
It should also be noted that the exhibition will be continually altered each time it is shown with site-specific integrity, so the phoenixes will act as foils and also assume a great deal of character from the environment in which they are temporarily ensconced, a hallmark in general of Xu Bing’s work. As a post-industrial complex steeped with the history of American capitalism, followed by a subsequent reuse and flourishing, MASS MoCA is a fitting site indeed for a lengthy U.S. debut.
“Xu Bing: Phoenix” will be on display at MASS MoCA through October 2013. In April of 2013, a second chapter will be added to the displays and expand the exhibit into an adjacent gallery. Included in this second chapter will be elements from Xu Bing’s “Square Word Calligraphy”, which the artist says forces Chinese and English together like an arranged marriage, and “Book from the Ground”, a Tower of Babel approach to language that incorporates text, recognizable icons, and various other imagery. A reception with the artist will be held at MASS MoCA on April 27, 2013 to lead off the second chapter of the exhibit.