If you live near NYC or will be visiting in the next year, and haven’t already gone, you might want to visit the cathedral of St John the Divine on Amsterdam in Morningside, near the Columbia campus. For approximately the next twelve months, the always beautiful church will be home to the Phoenix Project by Xu Bing.
As promising as the title The Phoenix Project is, given the heady symbolism of the phoenix in world mythology, the reality will not let you down.
The artist was asked to build a sculpture for the atrium of a new building during the construction boom prior to the Beijing Olympics.
When he visited the site, he was appalled at the harsh working and living conditions of the migrant workers. He was inspired to construct a Chinese phoenix, a fenghuang, from the discards of construction sites.
Every piece of refuse has been touched by these migrant workers. It is as if each piece has been touched by the heavens, after which it has a kind of spirit. So its beauty comes about from the history of these materials. –Xu Bing in Xu Bing: Phoenix
However, with the onset of the financial crisis, the developers found the piece too rough and unpolished. When the artist refused to cover the birds with crystal, they withdrew their support.
Though Xu Bing continued to work on the Phoenix Project, he would not have been able to complete the pieces without the funding from Taiwanese art collector Barry Lam.
The phoenix of Western mythology is not the same as the Chinese fenghuang
Images of the phoenix in Chinese culture date back at least 4000 years. Unlike the phoenix of Western mythology, of which there is only one in existence at one time, there are usually two Chinese phoenixes: one male and one female. Over time, the fenghuang has come to represent the female principle, yin, and to be associated with the empress, while the dragon is associated with yang and the emperor.
The fenghuang is one of the four sacred animals, along with the dragon, the tortoise and the unicorn. It is described as being a chimera made up of many animals, but it is usually represented as a mix of birds. It is very large, nine feet, and its long tail feathers have the five sacred colors: red, blue, yellow, white and black
The fenghuang is said to only appear during the reign of a just ruler.
Charles Gould, in his Dragons, unicorns, and sea serpents: a classic study of the evidence for their existence, points out that a bird of such majesty would naturally be seen as auspicious. His enthusiasm notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the fenghuang is based on an extinct bird.
The phoenix in Western mythology is associated with the sun
The phoenix of classical antiquity likely originated in Egypt. Never living less than 500 years, near the end of its life it would build a nest of aromatic woods and set it on fire. A young phoenix would then rise from the ashes.
This death and resurrection make it a potent symbol which was used, among others, by the early Christian church.
Close inspection shows the very humble components: plastic tubing, hard hats, shovels, fans – all sprinkled with LEDs like so much fairy dust. But the birds soar grandly, bigger than the sum of their components.
As Mr. Xu explains in the video, Chinese folk art uses basic materials to represent hope for the future. He wanted his birds to do the same.
The story we hear from Xu Bing’s phoenixes
Is slightly different wherever they fly, as befits any great myth.
In front of the Beijing Today Art Museum, they appear at night as illuminated angels soaring thanks to the effort of the nameless workers building the new China.
In MASS MoCA, they spoke to the precariousness of a global market.
In the cathedral, they remind us of the sacred responsibility to our fellow man, to fair wages and humane work conditions.
If you stand very still, you can feel the birds moving.
Traditionally, the fenghuang is associated with the cardinal direction south
The two birds at St John the Divine are facing west, but they definitely come from the east.
May their flight bring us closer and remind us of true fairness.