Photos: Xu Bing’s ‘Phoenix’ at Mass MoCA

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By Tim Kane

Stacks of large shipping crates reveal and conceal Xu Bing‘s installation “Phoenix” at Mass MoCA.

With arrows pointed upward, the crates guide and serve as a metaphor for China’s rise on the global stage, yet wall you off from what’s on the other side — two massive talismans representing contemporary China.

The containers are reminiscent of the Great Wall, built centuries ago to keep Mongol invaders out, but, unlike the 5,500-mile wall, they provide a path — albeit circuitous — to two imposing birds, measuring 100 feet long and with a combined weight of nearly 20 tons.

The birds are made from debris Bing collected at a construction site in Beijing amid the flurry of building activity under way in the country. They don’t soar but flutter, almost clanging forward, suggesting China’s ascendancy isn’t a single upward arc.

Made up of shovels, wheel barrows, steel girders, hard hats, scaffolding, gloves and heating ducts, they aren’t particularly pretty — kind of grotesque, really. Their gracefulness comes from their rich vocabulary bridging material and process, not their aesthetic qualities.

They poignantly comment on wealth and excess in China and all the stuff left behind by rampant expansion. To Bing, they represent the other side of China’s success often hidden from view; unequal income distribution, vast population changes uprooting many people and the environmental impact of so many projects.

On exhibit

Xu Bing: “Phoenix”

When: Through October

Where: Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Mass.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Tuesdays

Admission: $15 adults; $10 students; $5 children 6–16; free for children 5 and under, and members

Info: 413-662-2111;

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