By Caitlin Clay
In Greek mythology, the mythical phoenix conjures associations of a fiery death and rebirth from ashes. While the Western concept of the phoenix predominantly signifies renewal, this symbolism is not shared in the East. In China, the phoenix is often described as two separate creatures: Feng, the male and Huang, the female. Together they comprise the phoenix and represent the philosophical concept of yin and yang, opposite forces that are simultaneously complementary.
In 2014, internationally-acclaimed artist Xu Bing completed his seven-year-long project “Phoenix,” two monumental sculptures of the birds Huang and Feng. Bing is originally from China but immigrated to the United States in 1990 to escape the political and social unrest caused by Tiananmen Square protests. Now, Bing works in both the U.S. and China, maintaining what international communications scholars term cosmopolitan citizenship: an awareness of and interaction with multiple cultural identities.
In January I had the opportunity to see Bing’s “Phoenix” sculpture installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Each phoenix was suspended from the ceiling by metal scaffolding, allowing both birds to “fly” through the nave. Bing also created a sense of movement through natural and artificial illumination. Clear, early morning light filtered through the stained glass windows, causing prismatic colors to flare across the phoenixes’ surfaces. Both creatures were illuminated by LED lights that flickered like stars, adding to their otherworldly qualities.
I stood awestruck, circling around Huang and Feng’s 200-ft lengths multiple times. By the second pass, I began to notice Bing’s unconventional materials. The phoenixes’ wings were tiled layers of dirt-encrusted worker’s shovels. Their plumage was comprised of shells of dynamite and sticks of fireworks, and their tail feathers were tent tarp streamers that trailed weightlessly behind them. Feng and Huang appeared concurrently beautiful and weathered, physically heavy yet suspended in flight. “Phoenix” poses the question, why would Bing take the Eastern concept of this mythical creature and yin-yang philosophy and draw upon Western art historical definitions of found objects and assemblage?
The answer partially lies within Bing’s inspiration for “Phoenix.” When he visited Beijing in 2008 for the first time in many years, Bing was struck by China’s rapid urbanization and economic growth. At the construction sites, Bing was disturbed by the migrant workers’ extremely humble living conditions, which stood in sharp contrast to the wealth of surrounding high-rise buildings. To construct “Phoenix,” Bing collected tons of industrial debris from these sites. He originally intended that the sculpture be placed within Beijing’s Chinese Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, one of the city’s most costly skyscrapers. The proposition was rejected, and “Phoenix” was temporarily given refuge in St. John the Divine.
“I hope that [‘Phoenix’] appears romantic, very beautiful, but at the same time ferocious and sublime. Monstrous, but also real,” Bing said. “As if it were using the cheapest materials to dress itself up, making itself very dignified and carrying a sense of scars. That is what is moving about these phoenixes.”