Xu Bing Interviews Joseph Thompson, Director of MassMOCA

6 April, 2015

1: As you see it, what do you think is most unique about Xu Bing’s Phoenix in the art world?

The Phoenix occupies a unique location between Art, the history of China and in a broader sense, labour and the art of labour through time.

2: From your past conversations with Xu Bing, we know that your Please talk a little about why you think Phoenix has a special significance in the context of the history of Mass MOCA as a contemporary arts institution, and the history of North Adams.

As I’ve written in my essay, this site has a specific relationship to China. In the 1870s there was a major strike by factory workers in North Adams and the strike was broken in part by bringing in Chinese immigrant labourers from San Fransisco. This was a tumultuous time in the labour history of North Adams, but even more so in the labour history of industrial America. For example, at one time North Adams had the largest population of Chinese immigrant workers of any city east of the Mississippi river; larger than New York, larger than Boston. Nearly all traces of that Chinese population was lost by the 1920s and 30s. It was as if that entire chapter of history had been made invisible. So, to the extent that these birds, these great phoenixes somehow landed back in this factory space, bringing with them the signs of Chinese labour and hand work. it was as if a whole chapter of history had returned.

3: We’ve heard about many interesting anecdotes about the children in their education programs that have happened throughout the duration of the exhibition. Could you just share with us one of these memorable stories?

Many classrooms of children visited the exhibition during the one year it was here. But probably one of the most interesting and touching moments was that one class in particular made two or three visits. I believe they were a class from Albany, New York. The class came and visited just as we were finishing the work. The work was not quite complete, but we let them in and they saw the piece just as it was being installed. The teacher and the students in the class loved it so much they came back and made a school field trip to visit again and when they came the third time it happened at the time when Xu Bing was there. He happened to be in the gallery when the school kids arrived, and completely unplanned and unproduced the kids realised who Xu Bing was and they all ran to him and hugged him. It was really beautiful. It was a spontaneous eruption of admiration and they gathered around him and asked him a million questions and he was like rockstar!

4: What is your opinion of the progress of Chinese contemporary art, considering that you’ve brought a number of Chinese contemporary artists’s works to Mass MOCA?

This project was in some ways our 3rd or 4th major exhibition. Huang Yong Ping had his work here 3 times, twice as part of group shows and a one person retrospective exhibition of his work that was organised by the Walker Art Center. We also had an important suite of works by Cai Guo Qiang, and I think that was his first solo exhibition in the United States which led to his exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. It was a very large installation of exploding cars and tigers and gun powder drawings. We had another exhibition called Eastern Standard Time, which was a group show of artists from the West who were working and living in China for extended periods of time. So it was westerners who had adopted China as their home or as their studio space for a signifiant amount of time. Hence, we were looking at China in the eyes of western artists, so that was an exhibition about China. Finally we had the magisterial Xu Bing installation. Over the past ten years now it’s seem that every two or three years we’ve taken a hard look at China through the eyes of the artists. My takeaway is that, contemporary Chinese artists are amongst the most masterful storytellers and communicators working today. and the fact that these artists that have different cultural backgrounds and languages and vastly different histories can all communicate so directly, so powerfully and so theatrically with Western artists is astounding to me. and I’m a big fan, I like them. Chinese artists are willing to make a powerful narrative. Chinese artists like to communicate directly with the world. At least the ones that we’ve shown so far have it hidden behind obtuse abstractions.

5: What is your opinion about Xu Bing’s works as well as his exhibitions. Do you have any analysis or perspectives on his career in art creation? What do you think is valuable about it?

Xu Bing’s optimism in the face of his cleared eyed analysis of the difficulty of communication. He teaches us in many different way hows fundamentally different our languages are, the way that see as cultures, the way that we look at the same shape and interpret it in fundamentally different ways. he teaches us all that, but that the same time somehow remains at the core optimistic. I find that very beautiful. It would be so easy to take the kind of work that he makes and be hopeless but I find his work full of hope. We need that now.

6: As we all know, the Phoenix will be flown to the Venice Biennial and exhibited at the Arsenale. A lot of audiences from the West as well as the western art world have been paying more and more attention to this piece. However, Xu Bing thinks that the exhibition of the Phoenix in the West started in Mass MOCA.

How do you think the Phoenix will influence the West when it is exhibited in the western, social, economic and/or historical context. What new meanings will arise, or be created from this?

There are many. Obviously when the phoenixes were exhibited for a short period in China they meant one thing. They based to it as a comment on craftsmanship, a kind of industrial folk art, and the complex economic conditions of fast growth fuelled by labour. In the West, they mean all those things too, but then we also have to overlay on that the globalisation of culture, the extraordinary feat and resources that make moving these birds even possible. On one hand its absurd that these beautiful but very large works of sculpture have travelled so freely all around the globe. They’ve been taken apart, put back together, put on ships, put on trucks, rigged in place, rigged out of place. Streets were closed and opened again etc. If you trace the path that these birds moved, it is an extraordinary feat of logistics which requires a lot of time, planning and money. So the Phoenix also tell a secondary story, of the economics of the art world today andhow it functions. I believe Xu Bing is also interested in that sort of dynamic and mechanics. Hence, our every enjoyment of these works and their capacity to attract large audience to visit museums and cathedrals and art fairs around the world, we are implicated in their journey.

7: Aside from the Phoenix, Xu Bing also exhibited many other works of his including Background Story, 1st Class, the Book from the Ground etc. What do you think about the use of materials to create such works, especially his use of recycled materials?

What I found so beautiful about all those works is the way that Xu Bing drew and painted with analogue material. He drew in ways that felt like brushwork to me, but using light and shadow and the way that materials look differently from different angles. They had in them a sense of gesture, for example in Background Story the pooling of shadows in the milky substrate of plexi- glass, felt to me felt very much like the pooling of ink. Likewise in 1st Class the way that the tiger would become a zebra as you walked around, the orientation of the tips of the cigarettes and the tips of the filter would cause a radical reversal of light and dark as you move from one end to the other. This sounds to me like the kind of effect you get in the fibre of paper as it soaks up ink on a page, where voids and splatters become marks that we in turn, read. And so, I was very interested in the way that Xu Bing creates the feeling of traditional ink; calligraphic moves and gestures with these found materials and the most unlikely of things. For me, he changes the meaning of drawing.

8: Our questions may not have covered everything you’d like to say. We want to hear your own thoughts on this exhibition, is there anything you’d like to add?

Because this piece is about work and workers in some ways, let me first speak for our staff here who joined the Xu Bing Studio in reassembling the phoenixes and rigging them into our building. It was a little like putting a ship in a bottle, which required a vast amount of lifting equipment. It was heavy metal work, but at the same time delicate and precise, and the people who took upon that work found it immensely enjoyable. The sculpture at first look looks crude, raw and rusted, powerful in its simple structure. However, if you really looked at it closely, it is beautifully fabricated and has an internal logic that workers appreciated. The Phoenix had a consistency in its fabrication that comes from having been made by workers who were very familiar with materials. For example, a metal ridge would not be attached to a material at would at odds with a metal ridge. The grinder wheels were always mounted on a spindle so that they could turn because grinding wheels turn in the field. There were no false moves in the assembly of the birds, and I believe that our staff noticed that, and appreciated the craft of construction. This was a piece made with workers and it made working with the birds a joy. From the point of view of the visitors, it was a very popular piece. They would visit and visit again and sometimes for a third time, bring in different family or friends each time. The visitation was higher than its ever been, and was record setting in our exhibitions. I hope someday we may hit that number again, but that might take a while.