Upon approaching the Cathedral Church of St. John the Devine in Morningside Heights, NYC, you’re already caught in awe of the immense gothic church. Its stoic stone facade greets you with the same mystique of those century old churches in Europe. You would’ve thought the Hunchback resided in the quarters above. However, the main attraction is inside.
Over the course of two years, Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing collected debris from construction sites across Beijing and transformed it into a massive Phoenix that soars above the cathedral floors. Phoenix is composed of two birds, a male called Feng and a female called Huang, both weighing 12 tons and measuring 90 and 100 feet long, respectively.
Creating the phoenixes was a tortuous process, requiring flexibility at every turn. Describing the coming-into-being of Phoenix, the artist explains: “The method is unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns. At the same time it is also in keeping with the Western concept of ready-made assemblage. The entire process of creation forms an interactive relationship with the environment and Chinese society.” At once fierce and strangely beautiful, Xu Bing’s mythic birds bear witness to the complex interconnection between labor, history, commercial development, and the rapid accumulation of wealth in today’s China.
Phoenixes are respected creatures in Chinese folklore and Bing used them to symbolize the contrast in social-economical demographics in China. A lot of poor laborers slave away to build billion dollar luxury towers, and Bing used the tools and wastes from these construction sites to make a statement on this disconnect.
The Phoenix is on exhibition until the end of February 2015.