A Phoenix in Winter

Mass MoCA is an artspace housed in an old, enormous industrial complex in North Adams Massachusetts, nestled at the base of the Green Mountains and just above the Berkshires...it is crazy that I had never been there until just a few days ago! This space tends to be on the cutting edge of contemporary art with a strong lean towards performance, fostering residencies and events (ranging from the in progress to the rock concert) throughout the year. The progressive-ness of the space was definitely on view during my visit spanning everything from a Sol LeWitt wall drawing retrospective to the latest in Canadian video art (more on that soon!). But the thing that makes this space so appealing for so many artists is its size, featuring a nearly football field sized warehouse that is a daunting exhibition space for many...but not Chinese artist Xu Bing whose current exhibit, The Phoenix, just opened and who is so prolific, whose ideas are so big, he will be having a second show opening in April testing the limits of artistic gargantuanism! I would normally scoff at this idea, of an artist's bloated ego needing to fill up a hall this big twice over, but after seeing Bing's first round of art I was so inspired, so awe-struck, so full of ideas, that it definitely left me wanting even more.

Bing is mostly known for his work with language; inventing his own Chinese symbols, casting type faces, creating scrolls in reference to his heritage. His foray into large scale sculpture is a thing that was so arresting that I stood silent in it's presence trying to figure out a way to articulate the work to others, the piece communicating more through form than any blog post ever really could. Walking into the space that houses The Phoenix sculptures you are first confronted with crates, large packing boxes stamped with Chinese symbols that, presumably, were used to ship the giant birds across the globe. This seemingly simple detail of displaying the shipping method adds both an element of reveal, snaking you around into the exhibition space (like a good Serra), but also a nod to origin, manufacturing, communication, language and industry: these crates contain worlds and these worlds are so foreign yet hold the defining objects of so many other worlds within.

After walking through the crates you round the corner to see the actual sculptures, large, mythical birdlike creatures that rise from the ashes to be reborn as a new and beautiful animal. These Phoenixes hang above the large hanger feeling space, suspended so that they can be walked under and around, lightly floating while in actuality hulking with a dense weight, evoking a strange tension when you move closer and realize the composition of these beasts. Bing's birds are made from the refuse of construction sites in Beijing. Everything from used compressor cans, to saw blades, to sanding pads, to hard hats, all expertly patched together to form the image of these fire-birthed birds. It is so incredible, so complex, such an intricate puzzle- in both construction and content! Communist China recently had an industrial boom, a contradiction I don't quite get (their economy is some hybrid "socialist market economy" which seems to benefit the government but seems ultimately detrimental to workers, and one that the country regards with both skepticism and . This movement could be seen as a forward motion for the nation but is also highly arresting, detrimental to many Chinese workers. These birds are obvious, honest representations of the mythic past of a people whose world has changed and grown, concretized into a present that is ladened with contradiction, and whose future is precariously balanced on the wings of Bing's work.

Many contemporary Chinese artists deal with issues of reconciling a specific cultural past with the new culture of industry. Ai Weiwei and Stephanie Syjuco are two prime examples. And the recent, under-the-radar documentary Chimeras also deals with this issue by following a young, emerging Chinese photographer and a famous contemporary artist as they try to balance the changing cultures and expectations of their home, quietly displaying the clash of making relevant work in the face of tradition and the role that an "art star" system has in this particular politically motivated society- is it a mimic of the East? A new definition of what it means to be Chinese? Are the economic rise and the social structure compatible? The scope and scale of Bing's rendering of these questions will leave a permanent mark on his culture- especially since he was recently named Vice President of the Central Academy of Arts in Beijing, a feat that seems so unlikely in the wake of other recent treatment of thought provoking artists from the region. At first I thought the Phoenixes were a huge departure from Bing's language centered work, moving to an image in order to communicate with our image savvy digital society, but now I realize that they are an obvious extension. Each tiny fragment that composes these sculptures holds a meaning and history just as weighted as the entire image itself, the words of industrialization, the people behind the building, making up the sentences and identity of a highly spiritual cultural symbol...unlike the legendary Phoenix, and unlike the East's phantom vision of China, Bing's Phoenix is a solid representation of a culture that will always seem to remain intangible to others, at odds with itself, and always able to be reborn. More photos here.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.