Columbia professor Lydia H. Liu on Phoenix and the art of Xu Bing

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Now is the ideal time for those in New York to experience the work of Xu Bing (1955-), the world-renowned contemporary Chinese artist. Through January 2015, his monumental installation Phoenix, featuring two giant birds fabricated from construction debris, will be displayed inside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Book from the Sky, the work that first earned Xu Bing international acclaim, was recently on display in the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lydia H. Liu, the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and faculty member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, discusses Phoenix and other works by Xu Bing, exploring the questions and sensations that they provoke.  What follows is derived from a March 2014 interview (edited for content) with Professor Liu.

Professor Liu on Xu Bing’s Phoenix:

For Xu Bing, the creation of Phoenix was a process of discovery. He was first invited to make a piece for a new space in east Beijing where they were building two high rises that would be linked through a gigantic lobby. An investor from Hong Kong wanted a well-known artist to design something to grace that lobby space. And so Xu Bing was invited to take a look at that space and on his way into the building he saw the construction workers working there also. He saw the places where they lived. And he was struck. The Hong Kong investor who had asked him to do something for that lobby gave him this opportunity to look closely at what was going on around that building.  Eventually, the investor decided—in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008–not to continue the commission. But, Xu Bing had already almost finished the work. It had taken him a long time to finish that work. It was a process of discovery and he saw how those construction workers lived. If you were to ask him, he would say Phoenix is a “celebration of labor.” That is what he said to a number of people.


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It was very controversial when Phoenix was first exhibited in Beijing. Art critics there thought he simply used a folk icon because the pair of phoenixes “Feng” and “Huang” is an idea that goes way back into Chinese mythology. So people thought “Oh, a contemporary artist somehow is going back to tradition.” A number of critics were disturbed that Xu Bing was going back to tradition and, of course, he would tell you that you draw your ideas and inspiration from tradition. But, he didn’t first come upon the idea of the image of the phoenix when he was asked to think of something to create for that building.  The Hong Kong investor wanted something auspicious–an icon–for his building. So, first the discussion was “which of the auspicious Chinese icons would they pick?” One of them was going to be the image of the crane, which symbolizes longevity and prosperity and all that.  But then Xu Bing changed it to the phoenix. He decided that the crane wouldn’t work. Somehow, it was the phoenix for that space. People tend to get fixated on this idea. The problem with Chinese art critics when they saw just the traditional icon was that they were led by the idea of the phoenix and whatever it symbolizes. That’s too simple. Xu Bing’s work has to be interpreted in terms of how he engages with the material itself. He doesn’t simply take ideas from readymade images.  He gives ideas to material. That’s what’s most interesting about the work. And, also, he discovers things that other people don’t discover. That’s the talent of Xu Bing.

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Xu Bing is always working with illusion: what is real, what seems real.  That illusion is also produced sometimes through optical devices, like the L.E.D. lights that people will find on the phoenixes. Those lights look beautiful when you look at that pair of birds from a certain distance. His work always requires this doubleness of looking from afar and coming up close, so you see different things.  Almost all of his works have this magical quality.  First, you’re under the illusion that this is something familiar-an image of a phoenix, a bird, a beautiful installation. When you come closer and you look at the actual pieces that are there, you get a shock. You are hit immediately.  You have to ask questions about these pieces: those spades, the tools–where do they come from? They look used. I think this play between illusion and the material that produces the illusion is unique to Xu Bing.

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I think Xu Bing had a whole team that went around Beijing’s construction sites, looking for castaway materials and tools. They also went to garbage dump places in search of possible material for this installation.  Usually, when you walk by any of Beijing’s construction sites, you would see these things, but you don’t notice them. It takes someone like Xu Bing to really see them and notice them and put them together in a way that transforms them too. There is something about his work that’s deeply, deeply satisfying to a viewer.  I have seen viewers circling around his installations many times. I’ve watched them doing that. He can create objects that speak to people in that way.  You always look from a distance at a beautiful object and when you come up close it’s something totally unexpected.  You begin to ask questions.

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Phoenix itself–looking at it from a distance–cost a lot simply to be shipped here and constructed. It’s very expensive. That’s why it required a real estate investor to even propose the idea of creating it.Then it would be bought by a millionaire. No one could have constructed it without these peoples’ input. On the other hand, the pieces that go into the making of the art object are touched by those migrant workers. Those workers are the ones who could produce value for the investors who commissioned this work.  So, you see, there’s this logic that’s embodied by Phoenix. It says something about Chinese society as part of this global capitalist world. I think Xu Bing is very good at documenting that moment through very concrete images that are produced by that moment itself. That is what is extraordinary about him.  And, also, he’s capable of reflecting on the logic that mobilizes all of these forces: capital and labor. Even though the artist says that this is a “celebration of labor,” it’s more than that. It takes a lot of money to complete this whole thing.  Someone has to give money. And, ironically, it takes the capitalist to enable the artist to complete the work that would bring migrant workers into our view, making them visible.  So, it is the contradiction of Chinese society that is embodied by his whole process of putting Phoenix together.


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Professor Liu on Xu Bing’s Reflections While Reading, which is permanently displayed inside Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and its relation to Book from the Sky:

Reflections While Reading is a fascinating piece that is related to another invention Xu Bing made which is called the “New English Calligraphy.” Essentially he has invented a way of writing English letters–26 letters–by using the stroke system from Chinese calligraphy. You turn each English word into a square character. But, when you look closely, these strokes are made up of A, B, C, D… You can actually spell them. He’s done this in numerous exhibitions. He’s set up classrooms that children would enter and where they use brushes to write English worlds in Chinese strokes. This completely changes a person’s view of writing. And, you begin to realize “Oh, I can write English into square characters.” He has written a number of these works and he has also produced computer software that can produce these characters.  He is collaborating with a company to create a font that would allow computers to produce a text in English but that looks like Chinese characters. You can find a specimen of this project in Columbia’s C.V. Starr Library.

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Reflections While Reading is a work that goes back to the 1990s. In fact, there’s an earlier work that’s back in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  It’s called the Book from the Sky. It’s really the work that established him in the 1980s. He spent many years carving written characters that do not exist and then he printed them and bound them into books that nobody could read.  That’s the Book from the Sky. Some people suggest that it’s a deconstruction of language but it’s actually more interesting than that.  It simply shows that you could make so many more characters by using the existing radicals, the stroke system to make a character. There are also so many possibilities in which you can combine alphabetical letters.  In English, we can make many words that are not English. It’s that idea. What is so interesting is that when Xu Bing first exhibited Book from the Sky in Beijing people were stunned because, all of a sudden, these erudite, educated people became illiterate. They couldn’t read any of his text. It’s quite interesting how his work provokes people and it makes people realize what literacy is and how much people attach to their literacy.  When something comes along that somehow attacks their sense of literacy, they almost collapse.

Book from the Sky is his most extraordinary work.  And, I think Phoenix is probably his next most important work.  In both, Xu Bing plays with the dialectic of the familiar and the foreign, optical illusion, and, then: sudden discovery and revelation.

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Lydia H. Liu is Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Her publications include The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (University of Chicago Press, 2010); The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Harvard University Press, 2006); and, as co-editor, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia University Press, 2013).

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One thought on “Columbia professor Lydia H. Liu on Phoenix and the art of Xu Bing

  1. Great review, thank you. While it is not overtly referenced, the visit of the Phoenixes to the USA reminds me of the sometimes overlooked contribution of Chinese workers to the history of the American economy.

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