Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Best of 2014: Xu Bing's "Phoenix" at St. John the Divine

Xu Bing's Phoenix, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York

Commissioned to create a sculptural installation for the World Financial Center in Beijing, Xu Bing visited the job site while the building was under construction. His visit left him aghast at the working conditions of the migrant laborers on site, and inspired the direction his sculpture would take. Collecting waste and industrial artifacts found on the site and around the city, he then fashioned them into two larger-than-life phoenixes, 90 and 100 feet long, collectively weighing 12 tons. Beautiful and impressive as they were, Xu's original benefactors took issue with his vision, declining to install the birds in their intended home. They eventually found a showing in a gallery before making their way to the U.S.--first at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and now at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.

Upon climbing the monumental stair and passing through the doors, visitors are greeted by the birds from 20 feet overhead. Suspended from space frames hanging in the nave, the phoenixes--Feng (the male) and Huang (the female)--appear to be gliding towards the rose window. Essentially two gigantic found object sculptures, they are exquisite and complex compositions of discarded remnants of a culture's rush to modernization. These objects are given new life, the story of their humble origins elevated in a sacred setting.

Huang (foreground) and Feng (background)



Detail of Feng
Detail of Feng
3D-printed prototype of Phoenix
Xu Bing's phoenixes will be on display at St. John the Divine through February. The installation alone would be worth the visit, but if you've never been to the building, it is a marvel unto itself. Begun in 1892, the Gothic Revival Episcopal cathedral is still incomplete more than 120 years later. Even so, "St. John the Unfinished" is the fourth-largest Christian church in the world. Visitors are welcome when the church is open--daily from 7:30am until 6:00pm. Guided tours are also available.

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