Amazed gasps fill the main nave of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine as the visitors raise their heads to admire a pair of gigantic phoenix sculptures designed by internationally renowned artist Xu Bing. “The Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral,” which opened March 1 and runs through January 2015, offers a fascinating commentary on the “rebirth” of China.
Hung about 12 feet above the ground, the two phoenixes—the male, Feng, is 90 feet long and the female, Huang, clocks in at 100 feet—weigh 6 tons each. Made of metal recycled from a construction site in Beijing, the two look surprisingly graceful and delicate, almost like a big 3-D puzzle. Thousands of little lights and vibrant colors give soul to the cold, heartless steel, making the birds look absolutely stunning. But, like with many other contemporary pieces, the end product is not quite as important as the inspiration and motivation behind it.
In 2008, Xu was asked to design an art piece for a new building in Beijing's central business district. When he entered the construction site, he was faced with a camp of migrant workers whose work conditions left a lot to be desired. The phoenixes are the artist's direct response to what he saw there—the human face of China's rebirth: Poor people who are building luxury buildings while being treated like scrap metal.
The birds are a tribute to the hard work and sacrifices that the migrants workers make in China everyday. They are the ones suffering from China's rapid quest for prosperity and the capitalist spirit that has brought little benefit to them.
Xu's piece is not a commentary on the need to reuse, recycle, or be eco-friendly—the recurring themes in other pieces made from what we call “trash.” This is why the organizers' idea to create artistic workshops on sustainability does not quite capture the depth of Xu's artwork.
That the phoenixes are made from things we normally do not care about reflects the life of many migrant workers. China's rapidly changing urban landscape takes advantage of those who are willing to work long hours for almost nothing with little or no labor rights protection. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, there are 262.6 million rural migrants—people from rural areas who work in cities—which is almost as many as three-quarters of the U.S. population. The developers who originally commissioned the artwork rejected it due to its strong political message. It ended up hanging in a gallery in Beijing, then Shanghai, and was on display last year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass.
Each piece that composes the two phoenixes seems to tell their story. However, the phoenixes gain new meanings depending on where they are being displayed. As one of the tour guides said, Saint John's has outreach programs for migrant workers in the neighborhood, making the venue choice even more symbolic. Yet, in order for the piece not to gain more religious connotation, the artist decided to make them face the bronze doors, adding the impression that the birds are just about to fly away through them.
The link with New York, which has one of the largest migrant populations in the U.S., and with the U.S. itself seems obvious. What the phoenixes make clear is that China's quest for modernization is in many ways a quest for westernization, and someone has to pay the price.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the phoenixes hang at 20 meters above the ground and that they weigh 12 tons each. They hang 12 feet off the ground and weight six tons each. It also misstated the location of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art as being in Boston. It is located in North Adams, Mass. Spectator regrets the errors.