The Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

Cate McQuaid, “Review: ‘Xu Bing: Phoenix’ rises at Mass MoCA,” The Boston Globe, February 9, 2013.  

Cate McQuaid is the global correspondent for the Boston Globe newspaper, who wrote the article on Xu Bing: Phoenix’ rises at Mass MoCA. From this article, you are able to tell that this Phoenix isn’t like one that you’ve ever heard of or seen before. It also isn’t just one, there are two! One is a male that spans 100 ft long and the other is a female that spans 90 ft long. Both are massive and beautiful in their own unusually distinct way. In this newspaper article, McQuaid takes us on a journey of how the Xu Bing Phoenix’s came to be and where they eventually ended up.

According to McQuaid, the whole idea started when a Chinese real estate developer commissioned Xu Bing to create this massive sculpture for “glass atrium bridging the two towers of Beijing’s Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Center.” (McQuaid, Cat) After touring the construction site and seeing the “nasty working and living conditions of the migrant workers”, McQuaid tells us that Xu Bing “proposed using demolition and construction waste as his material.” (McQuaid, Cat) This piece in turn would show us how those workers were living life and all they had to deal with. The developer agreed, but when the economy changed, he had a change of heart and instead wanted the phoenix’s to be made from crystals. It was then that the tables turned. Xu Bing disagreed to the new terms because he thought that making them from that material would take away from the sculpture and also take away Xu Bing’s meaning for it as well. The contract was then terminated and the phoenix’s never stepped foot into that atrium. When this location fell through, the piece was then put up for a short time in the Today Art Museum and the Shanghai World Expo. The reasons for why this sculpture was only put up in these places for a short time are unknown. Despite the unique installation challenges, we can only speculate on the reasoning. (McQuaid, Cat) However, after those places could no longer support these birds, the piece made its way over to the United States and landed in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). While this museum is appropriate for these birds due to its historical background, Thompson, the Mass MoCA director hopes that in the future, the piece could go to “St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, where the church’s beauty would make a terrific contrast to the birds’ rawness. Former factory, Gothic Revival church — these are fine backdrops, of course, but they’re not perfect. The perfect site would have been that shining glass atrium in Beijing.” (McQuaid, Cat)

McQuaid laid everything out nicely for us as the reader. The use of the words she used painted the imagery of everything you needed to visualize while reading the piece. You are able to see yourself traveling from China to the Mass MoCA in the United States and understanding why the piece was made the way it was and how Xu Bing wouldn’t change for the developer. Even without the picture of the phoenix’s, one could still vividly imagine the “enormous, ferocious, gnarly” sculpture from the way she described what it was made from. (McQuaid, Cat) Overall, her assessment was very well done and pretty convincing. I’m able to see myself in each location that she talks about as well as the art. The only thing that I wish she had done differently was to only describe and compare the phoenix to the 1st Class piece Xu Bing did that related back to the labor force as well. I don’t think she needed to add Xu Bing’s other piece in this particular article.

McQuaids goals for this article were to show us how Xu Bing made this piece and the meaning behind it as well. If Xu Bing would have changed the materials to the crystals that the developer wanted, the sculptures look and meaning would have both changed. I think that McQuiad did a great job of laying all of this out for us. She first told us the journey of the piece, then described to us the events that inevitably led to this piece ending up in the United States. It was quite an interesting story and one that I got sucked into. I would have never guessed some of what all happened with Xu Bing’s piece from just looking at it, if it wasn’t for McQuaid. I probably would have never come to the same conclusion as what McQuaid described to us so beautifully.

– Chelsea Joffrion

Fun Fact: The phoenix did make it to St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York and that’s where it currently is.


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