Art with weight
Xu Bing’s ‘Phoenix Project’ takes flight at MassMoCA
Negative Space is Not So Negative, 2013
Acrylic on maple
147.75 x 20 x 1.5 inches
Courtesy the artist and DODGEgallery, New York
New England’s largest, most fanciful and, inarguably, its weightiest aviary is no farther away than North Adams’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASSMoCA). There, in a one-acre gallery space, two phoenix, constructed from metal scrap, canvas and bamboo, are illuminated with hundreds of tiny lights and suspended from overhead girders. The birds, “Feng” and “Huang” measure, respectively, 90 feet and 100 feet in length. Each, an amalgam of recycled metal plates, pulleys and construction effluvia, is the thickness of a school bus.
“It appears to be a little dangerous, but it’s very, very safe,” the Chinese artist Xu Bing (pronounced “shoo”) said, speaking through his interpreter, Jesse Coffino. “Each part has a kind of ‘fail/safe.’ There’s a double-insurance that each joining point has a second internal lock. ”
This is great news for the faint-of-heart, allowing us to walk freely under each 7-ton creation without a nagging sense of crazed fear. The intricacy of design invites close viewing. The breasts of the birds are composed of circular saw and fan blades. Each talon is a toothed shovel retrieved from pneumatic digging machines. Plumage is a weave of steel slats and the heads are defined by discarded industrial jackhammers. Peer through the windows from a side street long after closing time and the illuminated birds in the darkened gallery suggest a cloud of fireflies taken to the 10th power. It’s a metal recycler’s fever dream.
Rich and poor
There is more to these behemoths than the spectacle of their overwhelming size and means of construction. There is a political statement here as well.
When first viewing Beijing’s frantic construction pace, wherein historic neighborhoods were razed for extravagant buildings, Xu was struck by the displacement of entire families. Migrant hard-hat workers were no better off.
“I went to a construction site and I was shocked,” he said in a New Yorker magazine interview. “China ha(d) so many modern buildings, but you can’t imagine how poor the working conditions and primitive living situations were.”
This is the first American presentation of the “Phoenix Project.” At its first unveiling at Beijing’s Today Art Museum, it provoked controversy. The birds underlined the schism between the wealth of China’s nouveau riche and the poverty of the workers whose cheap labor is subsidizing the economic boom.
“As I saw it,” said Xu, “using garbage and construction waste to make a piece of work would make the building(s) look even more extravagant ... this grandeur would make the phoenixes look even rougher and more authentic.”
Book from the sky
The soft-spoken Xu, now in his late 50s, was politically radicalized early in life. During Mao Tse-Tung’s often disastrous Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, Xu’s father was imprisoned as a capitalist sympathizer. His mother was sent off for “re-education” as was Xu, who worked in hard labor as a rural farmer.
Xu, among the leaders of China’s artistic avant-garde, first gained attention with his late 1980s creation, “Book From The Sky.” For this compulsive masterwork, titled “Tianshu,” he designed a large room where hanging scrolls and shelves of books are written in meaningless characters. This required the labor-intensive carving of thousands of block images over a period of years.
The project may have been spurred by Xu’s youth, when long hours were spent in the Beijing University library where his mother worked as a researcher.
He found books to offer “a playground of the mind.”
In a 2009 videotaped interview, the artist noted that he viewed texts in an abstract way.
“My relationship with books is very physical,” Xu said. “I’m very interested in a book’s bindings and its density ... the way it all works together when you hold it in your hands.”
“Tianshu” became politically sensitive as it suggested an affront to the government’s use of authority and manipulative language.
Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, wherein soldiers fired upon student protesters, the artist’s liberalism fell into disfavor. He moved to the United States and now divides his time between Beijing, where he serves as vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and his New York studio.
The phoenixes, symbols of abundance and eternity in China, required two years to construct. Xu said that the reaction from Americans has been positive.
“They really love it,” he said. “One reason is that it carries with it the China of today. The Americans really have a love for this kind of industrial material.”
In 1999, Xu was the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius award.” He was asked if it affected his perspective.
“It didn’t change,” he said, “but sometimes when you get an award it changes other people’s views. It kind of proved your value because it’s difficult in art to prove your value. I continue to work and I’ve always been working.”
Among four other new exhibits, the most aquatic is a design by Hudson River Valley resident Jason Middlebrook, which indirectly references the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Blocks of recycled styrofoam, aged enough to appear as granite, tower almost 30 feet above you. They support three waterfalls before the stream disappears into the floor.
The architecturally hip may be reminded of “Fallingwater,” Wright’s most famous creation and now a public site. Built over a stream, the 1938 Pennsylvania hideaway features water flowing both within and outside the house.
“(I) tried to create a waterfall, which you can’t really do, but I tried,” Middlebrook said on opening night. “I think Frank Lloyd Wright was trying to build a house in nature, with nature, but he failed and succeeded at the same time.”
What also succeeds are Middlebrook’s geometrical paintings, found on tall, polished hardwood planks on walls surrounding the waterworks.
The artist has been creating the intricate designs for the past five years.
“Every time I think I want to stop, I start again,” the artist said. “There’s infinite language that pops up with these things.”
The wall-mounted assemblages by New Yorker Joseph Montgomery may remind you of Picasso or Klee abstracts made three dimensional. Using recycled materials, the works suggest the curious byproducts of industry. As one critic noted, Montgomery seems at times obsessed with the qualities of shims.
“The hope is that it’s attractive technically,” the artist said on opening night, “something that you’ll have a visceral reaction to ... the desire to touch and the desire to look at it from 180 degrees, so you’re involved with it.”
The Parisian artist Guillaume Leblon presents a surreal room of sculpture, ranging from constructions of bright, ribboned alloy metal to silhouette outlines of figures captured in white plaster. There are also tableaus created by pouring molten brass upon common items, creating an effect reminiscent of the almost-anything-goes-on-canvas artist Anselm Kiefer.
The large ribboned works are three-dimensional, one suggesting a mirror, while another suggests a mattress.
Leblon said the shiny metal objects convey “the idea of eternity and the rediscovery of an object — that there is no hand in the creation, you don’t see the beginning or the end.”
The Frenchman said that he works in several media because he’s “bored easily, if I repeat myself, I have to go on with a new object.”
The cult of celebrity
Williams College postgraduate Martha Joseph has brought together seven artists for perspectives upon our celebrity-obssessed culture. When entering the gallery you’re met with Chicagoan Jason Lazarus’ images from a June 25, 2010, motorcade that traveled six hours from Gary, Ind., to his city.
This was a wheeled homage to singer Michael Jackson, who’d passed away one year earlier. Starting at his hometown, the brightly decorated caravan, booming with selections from the gender-bending “King of Pop,” was a moveable and well-documented tribute.
“The driving force behind the exhibition was thinking about how it seems that audiences are becoming less and less passive spectators,” Joseph said on opening night. “We’re constantly ‘Facebooking’ and tweeting and interacting with celebrities and cultural phenomena that way.”
The delights range from New Yorker Eric Doeringer’s update of Ed Ruscha’s 1970s books cataloguing lonely Los Angeles settings to Canadian Jeremy Shaw’s two-channel video of punk rockers soberly slam-dancing in a Canadian mosh pit.
The actual substance of celebrity may have been best answered in a dialogue between a British comic and a theoretical physicist. The silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin was on a war bonds drive with Albert Einstein in the mid-1940s. They were standing atop a railroad car and a crowd of thousands of people were cheering wildly, mostly for Chaplin. Einstein was overwhelmed by the deafening noise and asked Chaplin what it all meant.
“Absolutely nothing,” the comic replied.
The “Phoenix Project” continues through Oct. 27; Middlebrook, Montgomery and Leblon exhibits through April 7; Joseph’s show through Jan. 5.
Currently in its fall/winter/spring hours, the museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed Tuesdays. It is closed Thanksgiving day and Christmas day, but is open Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Admission: $15 adults; $10 students; $5 ages 6 to 16.
Directions: Take Route 2 to North Adams. At the second set of traffic lights, just after Big Y supermarket, take a right onto Holden Street and an immediate left onto St. Anthony Drive. The parking lot is straight ahead.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.