Suspended in the Nave of Saint John the Divine is one of the most surprising and amazing sights you’ll see in a church. Phoenix, two huge and majestic birds in perpetual flight hang beneath its celestial ceiling.
In 2008, artist Xu Bing was invited to create a work for the World Financial center under construction in Beijing’s central business district. On a site visit, he was shocked by the primitive working conditions of the migrant labourers and inspired. The commission site, a glass atrium, connecting two towers, reminded him of a cage and he proposed placing two large birds inside it – a pair of phoenixes – Feng a male and Huang a female. Each to be fashioned out of the salvage and architectural debris from the construction site.
The construction of Phoenix was expected to take four months, but because of the the Beijing Olympics and the recession causing delays, it took two years. The developers became cautious of the controversial message Phoenix might convey. Claiming the sculptures looked unfinished, they asked for a layer of crystal to their exteriors. When Bing refused, Phoenix was rejected. Without financing, work stopped until a collector of Chinese art, agreed to acquire them and support their completion.
Completed in 2010, the Phoenix sculptures raise questions about the relationship between capital and labour and the cost of urbanization. A symbol of grace, the Phoenix is said to inhabit high, peaceful places and foretell great events. Weighing a combined twelve tons, each bird measures 100 feet they were constructed from the rubbish of the building they were meant to adorn. The placement of every piece, the hard hats that form the crowns, shovels fashioned into feathers, heads created from jackhammers and tails made out of architectural girders was carefully considered.
Saint John the Divine has a history of using art, performances and talks to create conversation within its congregation and so jumped at the chance to have Phoenix displayed in its majestic nave. I was shocked when I walked in to unexpectedly find it soaring in the air of the church. So unique and oddly beautiful, you can spend an hour just staring it and be amazed when you realize that its made from materials like pliers, screwdrivers and drills. Tip: Watch the video first on how and why the Phoenix was created.
I’m usually a cynic when it comes to visiting churches. I’ve gotten to the point of once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. But Phoenix surprised me and actually made me come back a second time. On display for all of 2014, I highly recommend you go as you most likely won’t ever see anything like this again displayed in such a cool setting.