Sunday, October 06, 2013

Xu Bing's Phoenix and coming back to life

Last weekend we visited Mass MoCA, a contemporary art museum located in a dazzlingly restored old factory in the Berkshires town of North Adams, MA. I hadn't spent any time in North Adams since the late 1980s, when it was a depressed, and depressing, mill town that had lost its mills. Now it is full of galleries, nice restaurants and small businesses, spurred by the renaissance that Mass MoCA has brought (similar to what is happening in Beacon, NY thanks in large part to the similarly dazzling Dia: Beacon art museum, also located in an old factory).

A family friend who works at Mass MoCA took us through the museum and pointed out her favorite parts, which are too many to describe here. We were especially struck by the exhibit called Life's Work, particularly the hundreds of page-size artworks that make up British artist Tom Phillips' A Humument. It would take weeks just to really look at each one of those pages, and it is worth at least an entry on its own. But nothing prepared me for Xu Bing's Phoenix.

When you enter the large hall that houses the two sculptures that make up Phoenix, at first you just see a wall made of the shipping crates in which the birds were brought over from China. It is not until you navigate around them that you find yourself face to face with the first phoenix, stretching back more than 90 feet. They are both beautiful and powerfully rendered, made even more so as you look closely at them and realize they are constructed from thousands of items of construction junk. Each one is made up of wheels, electrical parts, motor covers, tarps and the like that Bing and his crew of migrant construction workers gathered and painstakingly assembled and re-assembled over months of work. This video tells the story better than I can here.

After more than an hour walking around the birds and reading the book that described the many travails and setbacks that accompanied their creation and early installations in China, we moved on to other parts of the museum. But I woke up the next day realizing that Phoenix hadn't left me. The amount of perserverance and steadfastness that Xu Bing and his crew had to have, in addition to the stunning artistry of the pieces themselves, has been inspiring me since the visit.

As I have tried to write about in this blog, there are also explicitly ethical dimensions of this work. Bing conceived the idea after visiting the intended site for the original commission, in a building under construction in Beijing's Central Business District. When he saw the dismal living conditions that the construction workers lived in, in the middle of the flamboyant center of China's capitalist economy, he felt that the work needed to reflect and explore the disparities in front of him. Also, he (again, he says it better in the above video and other interviews) was trying to express and evoke something about the place China is taking in the world and the way that no one, even or especially the Chinese, understand what is happening and where it will go. He is trying to make a touchstone object that will help not only China but the world come to grips with what is happening in front of us at this moment in history.

More personally, somehow Phoenix, at least for the intervening week since our visit, has helped re-ignite my own willingness to continue the work described in most of the entries of this blog, which I have largely left fallow for the past couple of years. Mainly, so far, it has got me to work far more actively on finishing the first draft of a book based on my thesis. Though the achievement will be a tiny dot next to what Xu Bing has created, it is still something I can do and should at least finish. The "forces" arrayed against it (mainly, my own fears that it doesn't add up to much) are nothing compared to what Bing had to face and overcome to create his masterpiece. I got new ideas about job-related areas, that I am now trying to act on. And, I found myself being greatly energized when I got together with some friends to play electric music the day after the visit.

One of the songs we played was David Gilmour's Coming Back To Life, which always gets me going in any case, but has new resonances now in light of experiencing Phoenix and seeing the possibilities of new life in places as downtrodden as Beacon or North Adams once were.

This is one of the best performances of Gilmour's song -- enjoy it.

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