WASHINGTON — There’s nothing wimpy about Xu Bing’s phoenixes.
Even the two fragile, broken clay models on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here show the power of the mythical birds.
“In those (Chinese) traditional works, the phoenix as represented as very beautiful and decorative and very gentle,” said Xu through translator and Freer-Sackler Chinese Art specialist Dr. Daisy Yiyou Wang, “but in my own works, you can see very, very powerful, very aggressive compelling images.”
In the Chinese tradition, phoenixes have a variety of meanings including, “the king of birds, peace, prosperity, righteousness,” according to Carol Huh, assistant curator of Contemporary Asian Art.
The “Nine Deaths, Two Births” exhibit is tiny, with only two rooms, one featuring a video — but the show’s attraction should reach beyond Asian contemporary art enthusiasts.
Young engineers should be fascinated with the engineering drawings that made Xu’s mythical birds fly even though they weighed tons and were made from debris from Beijing’s many construction sites.
“Every bit of things that we used came from the hands of the laborers and the workers in China,” said Xu.
The two phoenix sculptures were originally created for the lobby of the World Financial Centre in Beijing, The art was supposed to be finished in four months. It took years to complete.
When first visiting the construction site, Xu was struck by contrasts of the working condition of the laborers and the shiny new buildings around them. “So, I was thinking of the construction waste or debris to build something beautiful to decorate the lobby.”
He hired a professional construction crew to build the massive phoenixes, one of which is 90 feet long, the other 100. The workers were migrant workers from the south of China.
What held up the construction? Among other things, the 2008 Olympics. For three months, the government prohibited construction in Beijing to help clear air pollution. The ban cut into the source material for his sculptures. After the Olympics came the global financial crisis that cut into support for the project.
The patron then asked for the phoenixes to be wrapped in crystals. The artist declined. One of Xu’s other supporters, from Taiwan, continued to back the project to completion.
With the models of the sculptures in D.C., the two phoenixes are on display at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through November. After that, they are supposed to “fly” to Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. One point of discussion was whether the heads of the sculptures would be moving toward the altar or the door, as Xu wished.
Again, the artist said, he won.
“The two phoenix were made out of construction waste, but at night appear very ethereal in the sky,” said Xu. “My two phoenixes are quite different from all phoenixes in history.”
April 27–Sept. 2, 2013
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.