NORTH ADAMS -- In western cultures, the phoenix is a symbol of rebirth or new beginning. It also has positive connotations in eastern cultures, where it is often seen as a sign of prosperity and royalty.
But the phoenix has not brought great success to Chinese-born artist Xu Bing in his homeland. His two monumental sculptures, "Phoenix," have rarely been shown in China, where he spent two years fabricating them from materials he harvested from construction sites in Beijing and from the workers building the towering skyscrapers there.
"Xu Bing: Phoenix," which opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday in Gallery 5, will kick off the museum's winter and spring seasons and is the premier appearance of the sculptures outside of China, where they were briefly displayed at Today Art Museum in Beijing and then at Expo10 in Shanghai.
"The story of this piece begins in the dramatic skyline of Beijing," Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson said Wednesday during a preview of the museum's 2013 winter and spring shows. "Xu Bing had left China to attend school in Wisconsin, and had then moved to New York City, where he had lived for about 15 years, when he was invited back to China to create a work of art. During his absence, there had been this huge economic boom and China had begun to blossom economically."
Originally commissioned to create a sculptural piece that would sit inside of a cage on top of a skyscraper in Beijing, Xu Bing's original proposal was a set of cranes.
"When he arrived at the site, he was amazed by what he saw -- these urban neighborhoods being ripped out for these large skyscrapers to be put up," Thompson said. "What he saw was the difference between the very glittery and rich skyscrapers and the neighborhoods of the poor. It struck him as very dramatic, this disparity between the two worlds."
Xu Bing befriended the workers and began making his sculptures -- phoenixes -- from the construction site debris and from materials of the everyday life of the workers.
"Because of Xu Bing's interest in exploring the crossover between languages and his ‘flipping' of iconology in his works, the original commissioner of the project realized there was a kind of critical component in these very raw, rough sculptures," Thompson said. "[The original commissioner of the work] dropped the project like a hot potato and Xu Bing undertook the project on his own. He worked on it and finished this thing, largely with sweat equity."
The birds, which weigh 12 tons and are internally lit, will be hung from the ceiling of Building 5 and will be visible from the street. They will serve as the centerpiece of a series of works by Xu Bing.
In addition to the Xu Bing installations, the galleries will see three new exhibitions, all curated by Denise Markonish, on view beginning Saturday, March 23. "Life's Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera" originates with the idea of a project that an artist continually goes back to, which simultaneously becomes a trace of that work and a career. Both projects in the exhibition span decades and generations, and also function as re-inventions of existing texts.
"In Mark Dion: The Octagon Room," the artist investigates the blurred boundaries between art, society, and history, as well as the homogenized methods of their presentation and consumption.
"One Minute Film Festival: 10 Years" celebrates an event that took place annually in a barn in upstate New York from 2003 to 2012. At the festival, one-minute films were screened. The works -- 600 one-minute films -- will be screened in three rooms at the museum.
On Saturday, April 6, the museum will host "3-2-1! Celebration" which will mark the official openings of the three exhibitions, as well as the closing of "Oh, Canada" The celebration will begin with a cocktail reception in the galleries, followed by a benefit dinner and silent auction in the Building 5 Gallery and culminate with a dance party in the Hunter Center with special guest DJ King Khan. For more information on the upcoming season, visit www.massmoca.org.
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email