Contemporary Artist Xu Bing

IMG_1225I recently made my first visit to MASS MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art located in North Adams, Massachusetts). There I discovered a series of monumental works by Chinese artist Xu Bing. The exhibit includes a giant faux tiger-skin rug constructed with approximately 500,000 cigarettes; a fascinating exploration of language involving international symbols, a new animated film and the merging of Chinese calligraphy and the English alphabet; a depiction of a traditional Chinese landscape painting using a light box and a collection of debris—dried branches, crumpled paper and trash; and two enormous phoenixes that take flight inside the museum’s expansive factory space.

IMG_1215“On returning to Beijing after almost two decades in the United States, Xu Bing was struck by the immense changes wrought in China. The rapid development of urban centers—and the new skyline populated by soaring, luxury skyscrapers—were a striking indication of the country’s new wealth as well as the cultural and social changes that accompanied it. The Phoenix Project (2007-2010)—two spectacular and massive birds fabricated with construction and demolition debris from building sites in Beijing—was born from the artist’s experience of these new developments. Installed in MASS MoCA’s 300-foot long main gallery, the two great phoenixes—each nearly 100 feet long and weighing over 20 tons in all—were created over a period of two years.”

IMG_1224“Originally the works were commissioned by a real estate developer/collector, and were conceived for the glass atrium connecting the two towers of the Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Tower. Visiting the site, Xu Bing was struck by the stark contrast between the luxury of the new building and the crude conditions in which the construction workers labored and lived. He began collecting and purchasing materials from what he saw as a landscape of waste to create the birds which, for the artist, would emphasize the intersection of these two versions of Chinese society—its grittier realities as well as its fast-emerging splendor.”

IMG_1223“The artist was particularly attracted to an image of the phoenix from the Han Dynasty, when the bird was often featured in male/female pairs like those now suspended from MASS MoCA’s beams. Steel rebar, girders, bamboo, scaffolding, conduit, shovels, hard hats, gloves, and other evidence of labor (and demolition) form the body, feathers, and talons of Xu Bing’s interpretation of these mythical birds.”


IMG_1238“The tiger-skin rug is a recognizable symbol of colonialism and luxury in Asia. Xu Bing’s version also references the history of the global tobacco trade—both its role as a boon to many economies and its complex position in society and in our psyches—as a much-loved indulgence and a known threat to health. (Xu Bing’s father died of lung cancer).

IMG_1240“The title, 1st Class, ironically the name of a U.S. “The title, 1st Class, ironically the name of a U.S. brand of discount cigarettes, hints at the socioeconomic disparities and power relationships associated with both cigarettes and the tobacco industry—especially when coupled with references to luxury, colonialism, and domination represented by the tiger skin. Harvesting and drying tobacco is backbreaking work, and in many places tobacco workers are forced to work under poor conditions and for little pay despite the wealth of the industry. Globally, tobacco workers are among the most disenfranchised and often represent a migrant population.”


IMG_1239“Xu Bing’s work—including its labor-intensive mode of installation—is an homage to the agricultural and industrial workers the artist respects and admires and also a reminder of their vulnerability.”

All quotes are taken from the MASS MoCA exhibit guide titled Xu Bing Phoenix. The exhibit runs through October 27, 2013. For more information, go to:


About HomenDunRoamin

Teaching Artist & Writer: fiction, poetry & nonfiction. Recently completed work: a hybrid memoir. In progress: a novel set in an unnamed Latin American country on the brink of war. The book examines violent and nonviolent resistance and the choices women are forced to make to survive.
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