Xu Bing is one of the great voices of the early Chinese avant-garde. His masterpiece Book from the Sky (1987– 1991) consisted of thousands of Chinese characters invented by the artist that were then woodblock-printed onto flowing scrolls and made into hand-bound books. When the installation was unveiled in 1989, it shocked audiences with its jarring combination of meticulousness and absurdity, and he decided to move to New York. There, in the 1990s, he invented an English script made from Chinese calligraphic morphemes that would baffle readers of both languages in an elegant parody of then-prevalent conversations about identity and globalization. In the mid-2000s he returned to Beijing, taking on the deputy directorship of his alma mater, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, a position he held through late 2014. There he engaged with a different, if also equally complex, set of social and intellectual realities from those he had encountered as a student two decades earlier.
At the Biennale di Venezia, Xu Bing presents Phoenix, one of the main projects of his second Beijing era. His Phoenixes began as a commission for a Hong Kong developer building a pair of office towers in the People’s Republic of China. They were first realized in Beijing in 2010, but have since been widely exhibited elsewhere, including the decommissioned light bulb factory of Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. Looking to make visible the unseen consumption—not just of materials, but also of human lives—inherent in the widespread urban development that led up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xu Bing transfigured construction debris into a pair of male and female mythical birds, Feng and Huang. He has explained his method as at once vernacular—“unsophisticated, like Chinese lanterns”—and indebted to the modern lineage of the readymade. Installed at the Gaggiandre, the birds either loom or soar, reminders of the complex interconnections between labor, material, and culture.