Phoenix: Xu Bing at the CathedralSunday, June 08, 2014
Walking into the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine this past Saturday afternoon was a surreal experience. Underneath the historic cathedral's soaring Gothic nave, Chinese artist Xu Bing's stunning Phoenix sculptures hung poised for flight while the sound of live kirtan filled the air, in preparation for the evening's Interfaith Kirtan for World Peace. It was quite a spectacular moment highlighting both the Episcopalian church's progressive views and the sheer diversity of experiences one can have in New York.
On its own, the cathedral nicknamed "Saint John the Unfinished" for its perpetual state as work-in-progress is a sight to behold. Its stylistic influences are manifold—French, Spanish and English Gothic, as well as Romanesque and Byzantine—but come together to striking effect. With the cathedral as foil to Xu's monumental art, the resulting picture is rather awe-inspiring.
A closer look at the phoenixes, dubbed Feng and Huang, makes the artwork all the more enthralling. Each soaring figure is composed of materials salvaged from a construction site in China, where Xu was struck by the poor conditions migrant workers labored under. Xu designed the phoenixes using drawings, models and software then had them constructed, assembly-line style, in a factory outside Beijing, mimicking today's methods of construction. These majestic forms created out of intricately layered pipes, shovels, pliers, saws and assorted construction detritus reflect on the inextricable connection and inherent tension between rapid commercial development and migrant labor rights.