Flight of the Phoenix
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
A review of Xu Bing’s installation at St. John the Divine.
By Alexandra Eynon
Within the cozy confines of our classically-constructed campus, we often take the neo-gothic record-breaker just south of us for granted. At best, we feel its presence from behind the windows of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, or while blearily stumbling back from 1020. Thankfully, a January snowstorm saw the arrival of a couple of good reasons to finally venture inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine: two phoenixes weighing nearly twelve tons each, the project of conceptual artist Xu Bing.
After the phoenixes had been trucked over to the church from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), workers from the artist’s studio and church staff pried open the cathedrals’ great bronze doors for the first time in a decade to place them inside. To set up the exhibition, an elaborate scaffolding was constructed in the nave, where the birds now hang suspended by a system of chains and pulleys. The industrial aspect of the installation is fitting, both to the history of the phoenix project and its resonant presence in St. John the Divine—the Anglican cathedral that, while billing itself as the world’s largest, is also poignantly, perpetually incomplete.
Xu Bing, whose oeuvre deals primarily with the interplay between the literary and cultural traditions of China’s past and the transformative forces of globalization, conceived of the phoenixes in 2008. As part of a permanent installation for a new building in Beijing’s Central Business District, Xu was nominated to fill the proposed cage-shaped space with a pair of feathered figures from Chinese mythology: a male and a female phoenix, crafted meticulously from construction debris, the castaways of labor and capital.
In a moment of poetic justice fitting to the work’s allegorical richness, work on the project stalled during a construction ban on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. Then the developers ultimately rejected the project, both for its political implications and rough-around-the-edges appearance. After a wealthy collector resurrected them, the phoenixes found their way to St. John the Divine, following a stint at an art fair outside of Beijing and their lengthy installation at MassMoCA.
While the phoenixes are rooted in Chinese tradition, their ready-made appearance speaks to international contemporary art practices. At St. John the Divine, the industrial figures—whose exuberant plumage includes architectural girders, metal canisters, and bright plastic tubing—engage in a many-layered conversation with the ecclesiastical space. Examining these enigmatic accretions of carefully assembled materials, one is prompted to reflect on how we build our monuments in a hyper-industrialized age. These phoenixes that rose from rubble remind us of the wealth of potential in things so often left behind and casually disregarded.
In the context of St. John the Divine, the cultural multiplicity of this work, enmeshed literally and figuratively in the traditions of east and west, reminds us of other kinds of accretion—for example, the construction of New York’s municipal narrative. Today, the looming borrowed figure of the gothic cathedral sits down the street from a neo-Renaissance Italian Academy, a stone’s throw from a reasonable impression of the Pantheon.
Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral runs until Spring 2015