Xu Bing, one of China’s most widely known artists, brings his latest work to Mass MoCA. Originally commissioned for the World Financial Center in Beijing, The Phoenix Project, made from the debris of a skyscraper construction site, has found its way to North Adams after being rejected by Beijing.
The two massive phoenixes that make up the piece, traditional symbols of imperial power and divine femininity, are lit from within, glowing with hundreds of LED lights. The materials reflect the process of Chinese modernization. In cities like Beijing, ancient neighborhoods known as hou-tongs are razed to make way for steel and glass towers. The old neighborhoods, while beautiful, are often lacking in basic utilities like electricity or running water. As a result, the hou-tongs are usually populated by the poor and elderly.
Hou-tongs have seen new life as a growing number of the remaining homes are purchased and then modernized by artists. This has led to the formation of small enclaves of history and creativity in otherwise shiny new cities devoid of the dirt of the past. The pressures of development, treatment of laborers, and repurposing of materials from trash to art are referenced in Xu Bing’s majestic birds.
Xu Bing’s other works include Tobacco Project, in which he constructed a tiger skin out of cigarettes, lining up filters to produce stripes, and Book From The Sky, in which the artist created 4,000 nonsense characters and printed them onto flowing scrolls. His work is well received in his home country and abroad, something rather remarkable for an envelope-pushing artist in the People’s Republic. His focus has been on the challenges that modern China faces as it rushes towards the future, wealth and urbanization, often at a steep cost to the people, the land and the country’s history.
Through October 2013, Mass MoCA, 87 Marshall St., North Adams, (413) 662-2111, www.massmoca.org.