Phoenix and Their Secrets

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

In Cate McQuaid’s review in the Boston Globe Magazine, “Xu Bing: Phoenix rises at Mass MoCA  takes the audience on a journey  into the world the Chinese artist Xu Bing and his exhibition consisting of the Phoenix, First Class, and Background Story 7. Due to McQuaid’s display of skill at storytelling, she shows rather than tells of the three parts of the exhibition through specific descriptions and historical contexts.

In order to lure the reader in Xu Bing’s world, McQuaid presents the reader with the most important and titular piece in her review, Phoenix, giving us the physical description and historical symbolism of the art itself. She wastes no time describing the materials that the first exhibit was constructed with:”Bowled over by the…nasty working and living conditions for the migrant workers there, he proposed using demolition and construction as his material”. Not only she describes the “glorious pair of birds”, McQuaid convinces the audience to know that the birds are “beasts” that symbolized “imperial power and prosperity” by telling us of their “heads made from industrial jackhammers and feathers made from shovels” with “plastic green accordion tubing wriggling down their long tails”. She backs this claim by the insight of Xu Bing’s history as a boy growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution until his emigration to the United States in 1990. This was a time where dramatic shifts, political, industrial, economic, happened frequently.

The next part of the exhibition is First Class. McQuaid does not go into deep description like she does with Phoenix, but she does have us look into another history lesson of the reason why the faux tiger-skin is made from “more than a half million cigarettes”. She does well in describing the importance of this exhibit by giving the history behind the cigarette-made tiger-skin.  She writes of the affluent tobacco markets in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, with tobacco being as “social currency” for the people.

The last part of the exhibition is Background Story 7. She does not hesitate to go into historical context, writing to us that it is a “re-creation of a masterpiece…Landscape Painted on the Double Ninth Festival”, a work from the Qing Dynasty that used a light box 12 feet away from mountains and evergreen trees. Although she writes this, she later goes on to say that is a not an artwork at all. It is basically “trash and plant clippings taped to the light box’s frosted glass.”

– Jwan Boddie

Image result for xu bing phoenix

Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2013, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts

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