Artist Xu Bing’s ’Phoenix’ takes flight at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York

Artist Xu Bing’s ’Phoenix’ takes flight at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York

Chinese artist Xu Bing’s majestic ‘Phoenix’ installation has spread its wings inside the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. The work will be suspended from the building’s nave for the next year, having migrated from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA).

Crafted from workers’ tools and debris salvaged from demolition sites across Beijing, the monumental duet of birds draws on both fenghuang (Chinese phoenix mythology) and the city’s ever-evolving landscape as it continues to reach skywards with a slew of new architectural projects.

Feng, identified as the male of the pair, and the female, Huang, together weigh over 12 tonnes, measuring 90 and 100 feet respectively. As the pair twist and turn through the nave, a closer look reveals the medley of screwdrivers, tubing, shovels and drills that comprise the sculptures. The work is a commentary on the radical economic changes fuelling China. ‘The phoenix of today’s China bears countless scars,’ says Xu Bing. ‘It has lived through great hardship. But it has adorned itself with great respect.’

The creation of ‘Phoenix’ was an arduous process that began several years ago in 2008, when Xu Bing was struck by the low-tech techniques used in construction sites and the high-tech structures that would soon fill them. Inspired by this contrast, the artist teamed up with a crew of migrant factory labourers on the outskirts of Beijing to realise his artwork. ‘The method is unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns,’ explains the artist. ‘At the same time, it is also in keeping with the Western concept of ready-made assemblage.’

The installation of the sculptures at the hallowed cathedral became in itself part of the art work, as New York residents were treated to glimpses of the process over the course of two months prior to its unveiling. Arriving in sections on flatbed trucks, the works were carried into the cathedral, where over 30 hoists and 140 ft of truss were used to help them take flight.

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