NORTH ADAMS — A glorious pair of birds — giant, mythic, lit with white sparkly lights, and intimidating as dragons — now hang in the rafters of Mass MoCA’s massive Building 5 gallery.
They were not supposed to be here. The birds — phoenixes, and the impressive headliner of “Xu Bing: Phoenix,” now up at Mass MoCA — each nearly 100 feet long, and together weighing more than 20 tons, were a site-specific project commissioned by a Chinese real estate developer for a snazzy glass atrium bridging the two towers of Beijing’s Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Center.
The phoenixes never made it to that glass atrium. Maybe they were too subversive. Before starting work on the project, in 2008, artist Xu Bing toured the luxury building’s construction site. Bowled over by the squalor, debris, and nasty working and living conditions for the migrant workers there, he proposed using demolition and construction waste as his material.
The real estate developer signed on, but when the economy began to flag, he blinked. Would it be possible, he asked Xu, to sheathe the gritty phoenixes in crystal? Xu, one of China’s giants in the art world and a winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, couldn’t agree to that, and the commission fell through.
A crystalline skin would ruin these birds — enormous, ferocious, gnarly things, with heads made from industrial jackhammers and feathers made from shovels. The female has what looks like an old HVAC unit lodged beneath her breast. Plastic green accordion tubing wriggles down their luxuriantly long tails, and if you walk below them you’ll see strips of old bamboo, steel rebar, and girders. The creatures are at once ugly and magnificent. Their twinkling LED lights make them look as celestial as they look trashy.
Although in Chinese lore, the phoenix symbolizes imperial power and prosperity, these are not easy, feel-good birds. They’re beasts. They embody the schism Xu saw at the construction site: The thrust toward progress, wealth, and majesty has a seamy, rusted out underbelly, evident in the treatment of laborers.
Xu works on a large scale not just in terms of size, but in conceptual terms. His pieces unpack densely laden systems of exchange, from language to global trade. In his lifetime — he was born in 1955 — he has witnessed dramatic shifts in his country, from the Cultural Revolution, during which his parents, both academics, were detained, to Tiananmen Square, which prompted his 1990 emigration to the United States. He returned to China in 2007 and maintains studios in New York and Beijing.
The seeds for “1st Class” were planted in 1999, when Xu was a visiting artist at Duke University. The piece is a 40-foot-long, faux tiger-skin carpet made from more than a half million cigarettes. It bristles on the floor, and throws light; as you walk around it, the stripes appear to change from brown (the tobacco end) to orange (the filter end).
Like the phoenixes, “1st Class” stands on its own as a dark, alluring object of beauty, and there’s more to it. The Duke family made a fortune on tobacco; in the early 1900s, they targeted Asians as a prime market and opened a headquarters in Shanghai. Labor comes into this piece, too: Tobacco drove a good portion of the slave economy in the United States. To smokers, cigarettes are social currency, and the giant carpet is as seductive, perhaps, as a good smoke.
The third work here (more are coming, when the exhibit expands, in late April), part of Xu’s “Background Story” series, is his re-creation of a masterpiece of the Chinese ink drawing “Landscape Painted on the Double Ninth Festival,” a 1705 Qing Dynasty work now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It stands in a light box, more than 12 feet high, swept with smoky mountains and prickly evergreens.
In China, copying masterpieces is an intellectual exchange — a common practice in art scholarship, and a way to honor and learn from the great artists.
Walk behind “Background Story 7,” and you see it’s not a drawing at all. Xu has gathered trash and plant clippings and taped them to the light box’s frosted glass. Bits of plastic and tree branches spill onto the floor. Xu pays homage to the Qing Dynasty artist, carefully reconstructing his drawing not with ink and brush, but with garbage.
Which brings us back to the phoenixes. You won’t see them when you enter the gallery; you have to walk through a corridor of shipping crates to get to them, a reminder not only of the trip they took to get here, but of the constant flow of global trade. And how did they get here? Barry Lam, a Taiwanese computer magnate, purchased them, and loaned them to Mass MoCA.
They were shown twice in Asia, in front of the Today Art Museum in Beijing and at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson, who organized “Xu Bing: Phoenix,” said in an interview that the Today Museum show was cut short, and at the Expo, the birds were “relocated abruptly for reasons not that clear.”
Why? A piece this size certainly presents installation challenges. Otherwise, we can only speculate.
With its industrial history, Mass MoCA seems an appropriate site for the phoenixes. Thompson is now working to see if all that weight and rigging would be possible at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, where the church’s beauty would make a terrific contrast to the birds’ rawness. Former factory, Gothic Revival church — these are fine backdrops, of course, but they’re not perfect. The perfect site would have been that shining glass atrium in Beijing.