Log In Registration

Corporate Big Birds

by Melody Davis on May 23, 2013

Xu Bing
MASS MoCA, through Oct. 27


“Amazing” is likely the viewer’s first word upon encountering Xu Bing’s Phoenix (2007-2010)—which, properly, should be “Phoenixes” for its twin suspended sculptures. Even my 14-year-old son, who complains through every exhibition I drag him to, uttered “amazing.” Passing the “Zach test” is tough.

So prepare to be awed, for Xu Bing likes things big. His A Book From the Sky (1987) was a massive draped scroll with hand-carved and printed wood block characters that, while appearing to be composed of Chinese-like strokes, were entirely his own linguistic fabrication and therefore unreadable. Massive size and intricate handcrafted detail also apply to this exhibition. The phoenixes are gigantic, lit with tiny lights, and meant to humble us with their sublime construction (and contradiction) of trash—for the birds are entirely welded from recycled junk of construction sites. Their head plumes are red hard hats. Their bodies are a floating inert machine of shovels, wheels, metal plates, bamboo, steel rods, fire extinguishers, plane parts, etc. Their beaks are jackhammers.

Phoenix at MASS MoCA

The phoenixes arose from the waste pile of human ambition and remind us of what we discard, the telltale past of resources spent, and greed. They are awfully showy trash, and they were awfully expensive, for trash. They took years of cooperative effort from a team of sculptors. They required lots of money (to buy the trash) even after they were abandoned by their corporate sponsor, and the project to suspend them from a glass atrium in Beijing’s financial district was jettisoned. The phoenixes belong with the great corporate projects—in every sense of the word “corporate”—in installation and assemblage.

The problem with the phoenixes is just that word, corporate. Even if they did originate in a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you deconstruction of capitalism through its detritus, they still fly squarely in the big corporate-money fly zone. From big capitalism in Chinese real estate to big capitalism in American contemporary art and its real estate, the phoenixes aren’t rising out of any ashes. They may be welded rubbish, but they are the by-products of temples to global capitalism, and they now nest securely within them. In these silent birds you can almost hear the wheels screech and clang as industries bump and grind—culture or real estate, same thing.

The LED lights, once meant to allow the birds to be read at night like constellations in their glass atrium, now look like Disneyland. I could see them completely at home in Epcot Center. They could make us feel good about recycling and allow us to enjoy the aesthetics of the intricately crafted with a dash of nightlife sparkle, all at the same time. They are flying low with a confused morality—an ethics of consumption that does not follow its sympathy-to-the-workers principles espoused in the exhibition text. Those curlicues and spirals are just cute, crowd-pleasing touches over the belly full of anger that started the journey toward these ugly beauties. I can’t help thinking about the Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, but that eccentric artist, a tile-setter by trade, worked solo, and his constructions were his life, and he didn’t have to buy his trash. Street kids brought him wheelbarrows full of broken plates, and when Watts burned in 1965 the people protected the towers, though Rodia was gone. Nobody ever made a dime off them, but, all the same, they are a monument to their place and its culture.

Xu’s Background Story, 2004, a light-box “Qing dynasty scroll painting” replicated on site at MASS MoCA out of dirt and debris, does Jeff Wall one better. It is amazing in the best postmodern form: It walks the fine line between deconstruction and reconstruction, homage and perversion, such balance being a function of wit. And that “tiger rug” made of leaning cigarettes, that changes its stripes as you walk across the room (1st Class, 2011), well, that just blew me away. It was redolent with the smell of tobacco, cheap sex, gaudy artifice, and slaughter. Xu continues to develop his own hybrid writing system in the Character of Characters (2012-2013), a Sino-Anglo pick-up-sticks of letters. Take some time for that, too. They are all grand romances with our global cultures of art consumption, greed, drugs, and mash-up language. Xu thinks on a scale of thousands of years to the origins of mark-making, which is now written large in steel skeletons and skylines, ubiquitous icons, and cheap cigarettes.