NORTH ADAMS -- Chinese artist Xu Bing's phoenix sculptures are as massive as the culture they reflect, but now they have taken flight to America as a way to highlight the industrial and economic similarities between the two countries.
"Xu Bing: Phoenix," which opened on Dec. 22, is on display at Mass MoCA through October 2013. A "second chapter" of the exhibit will open on Saturday, April 27.
Xu's sculptures take a Chinese legend and use it to compile a reflection of the economic realities of the country. The materials he uses are from the trash left over from the construction of skyscrapers in Beijing, gathered at the commission of an international financial center for a piece to adorn its own skyscraper.
"Seeing this multitude of skyscrapers, and the thing that shocked me and really affected me when I went on these construction sites were the conditions of the workers and the work site," Xu said through an interpreter in a recent interview at Mass MoCA. "My interest was in the aroma, both of the realities of the work sight and the workers."
The expectation was that the work would take six months to complete, but two years became a more realistic schedule, due in part to a time of economic upheaval that would affect the sculpture's home.
"In many ways, this work is a record of the change that took place in China," said Xu. "So, only now is there an opportunity for it to be hung in Mass MoCA. In that period, China held the Olympics. In that three-month period surrounding the Olympics, the government decided that no construction work could be done at all. In that three-month period, the owner of the big building that had commissioned the work suffered some significant financial loss, and right after the Olympics was the world financial crisis. The company is an international company. At this point, these capitalists began to lose their sense of humor when it came to art."
The Phoenix Project rose as a flying fury that commented on the very situation that helped create it -- brash, economic prosperity that suddenly plummeted out of control.
"This reflects a number of issues, including the relation between labor and capitol, and also talks in many ways about the breakneck pace of urbanization that is taking place in China -- the process of huge numbers of peasants becoming urban workers," Xu said.
Xu created the work upon returning to China after 18 years in New York City, where he moved following the 1989 protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He embraced his homecoming as a way to soak in the realities unfolding there, and a moment to measure the difference in his life there from his previous American existence. The phoenix became a way to express that contrast.
"The way I see it, if I stayed in New York and spent my days going to Soho or Chelsea and going to galleries, I would never have made work like this," he said. "In the process of making this work, I realized, in the end, in many ways it resembles the methods used in folk art. ... In the day, you see this very real, very heavy, almost scarred object. It's like somebody who is impoverished using the least expensive items to dress themselves up in a beautiful way with great self-respect. At night, as the light fades, the light bulbs inside slowly appear. When the night falls completely and it's black, the lights will appear as a phoenix constellation, something at great distance from our everyday lives, something quite beautiful."
In researching the piece, Xu became aware of not only the many readings of the phoenix in Chinese culture, but those around the world. Xu realized that his phoenixes, which often play a counterpoint to dragons in traditional art, translated to many audiences beyond China and were a perfect tool to communicate the common messages within singular venues.
"Every culture has stories of the phoenix and metaphors relating to the phoenix," he said. "In most of these, the implications are similar; they're all very poignant. ... Anyone who sees this work will have a sense of the poignancy of human ideals and the realities of human ability.
"China has many, many folk tales and explanations of the phoenix, because, in the end, it's something that doesn't exist, something that is the product of imagination. Because it's imaginary, people can supply it with any meaning that they want."
Xu's show isn't anywhere near done. In April, three more bodies of work will be added on. In one, "Book From The Ground," Xu has spent years creating his own visual language styled from icons and pictographs around the world, and fashioned them into a story about 24 hours in the life of the main character.
"It's a book that anyone in the world can read," Xu said. "You ability to read the book is not dependent on your level of education or your cultural background. It's a very new concept. It changes the way we think about the limits and the scope of human culture."
There will also be software accessing the font library and allowing for translations between different languages, using Xu's new creation.
Xu will also offer Square Word Calligraphy, which is a subtle hybrid of the English language and traditional Chinese calligraphy that challenges viewers, depending upon which language they speak.
"When Chinese people approach this calligraphy, it looks very, very familiar, but if they don't read English, they are unable to decipher its meaning," Xu said. "Somebody who reads English will see this calligraphy and it will appear to them as Chinese, but they will, in fact, be able to read it. In many ways, this form of writing transcends our pre-existing ways of thinking about language."
Xu says that Square Word Calligraphy has been used in some practical applications, such as being part of an IQ test given by the Australian Ministry of Education, and, in Hong Kong, a way that businesses interviewing prospective employees can gate "their mental acuity, their adaptability, and also their sense of humor."
Xu will also offer an animation that examines the effect of language -- specifically, the written one with its complicated coding that has lived for 5,000 years and requires Chinese students to study thousands of characters over years and years. Xu is certain that the language has shaped other aspects of the Chinese culture.
In the meantime, the "Phoenix" will be the main attraction, and Xu has been busy considering the relationship between his sculptures and their current home, and what this partnership says about both cultures involved.
"It's a huge work, so you spend a lot of time looking for venues to show that work, and in that process, we realized that each place it's shown, it takes on new meaning," Xu said. " ... The phoenix, when it goes somewhere, they take on each other's character.
"Take, for instance, Mass MoCA, which has this long and important history in the flourishing industrialization of America, but now so much industrial production has moved to China. ... Now this piece that bears all the marks of an era of Chinese industrialization, it's twice as fascinating, because the period of American industrialization and Chinese industrialization are very, very different."