August 8, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Fenghuang

        I like mythical creatures, and I like sculptures made from found mechanical bits and pieces, and these phoenixes check both boxes on a massive scale.  I featured the artist Xu Bing earlier this year for his wood block prints, but these sculptures begin to give you an idea of the breadth and variety of his artwork.  The two phoenixes are made from materials collected from construction sites in China.  At 90 and 100 feet long, they’re almost more roc than phoenix!
        The Chinese phoenix is called "fenghuang," and originally feng was male and huang female, which is what Xu has named his two huge sculptures.  Although fenghuang is given the English translation “phoenix,” the only thing they really have in common is being magical, mythical birds.  The fenghuang lives on the Kunlun Mountains in northern China and appears only in places blessed with exceptional peace and happiness.  It became associated with the empress, to pair with the dragon representing the emperor, and now the paired dragon and phoenix are often used in wedding decorations to symbolize the perfect union between husband and wife.  (“Dragon and phoenix” is also a common item on Chinese menus.  In the USA it’s a dish that combines chicken with seafood.  Additional fun fact: my children P and T are “dragon and phoenix children,” i.e. boy-girl twins.)  In any case, the fenghuang represents all sorts of auspicious virtues.
        Xu’s Feng and Huang represent the cultural changes brought on by rapid development in China, and they’re a reaction to the terrible conditions experienced by migrant construction workers in China.  Xu said of his phoenixes, “They bear countless scars.  [They have] lived through great hardship, but they still have self-respect.  In general, the phoenix expresses unrealized hopes and dreams.”  You can see that they’re entirely composed of salvaged construction materials: rusty metal, battered hard hats, ductwork tubing, backhoe buckets, and so on.  I haven’t seen these sculptures in person, alas, but from the photos I’d say they don’t seem so grim to me.  They look quite powerful and transcendent.

[Pictures: Phoenix installation at MassMoCA, sculptures by Xu Bing, 2013 (Image from The Daily Gazette);
Feng at Cathedral of St John the Divine, sculpture by Xu, 2014 (Image from Bobby Zuco);
Huang at Mass MoCA, sculpture by Xu, 2013, (Image from Colossal).]


Linda Gardiner said...

These are spectacular! Thanks for sharing. Plus I now know a bit more about the Phoenix myth. I saw sculptures in Alaska made from Ocean debris that were similar in feel. Huge jellyfish, a huge salmon etc.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Those sound cool. I love when people turn something wasted and ugly into something beautiful.