Xu Bing’s Phoenix at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine

If you’ve ever walked up Broadway at 112th Street, you may have noticed the apartment buildings, restaurants, and, if you’re looking east towards Amsterdam Avenue, one of the largest Anglican cathedrals in the world.  Nearly 125 years old, this famously unfinished church is home to over six buildings, three gardens, and a larger-than-life Peace Fountain that features a battle between Satan and the Archangel Michael.  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is much more than a church – it is a New York City landmark and cultural center.

As the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Cathedral is remarkable not only for its sheer size but also for its unique mission. Known for a strong tradition of engagement with art that includes exhibitions, artists’ residencies, and performance series, the Cathedral believes that “art, activism and spiritual life not only nourish one another, but require each other for full expression.” (Cathedral pamphlet) The Cathedral understands itself as a “house of prayer for all people, and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” and this mission to unite what seems disparate is reflected in everything from the interfaith, international community that it fosters (including many of the immigrants who have come to New York City since its founding in 1892), to the very architecture of the building itself, which includes styles from High Gothic to Romanesque to Byzantine, to the constant intertwining of liturgy, art, and social justice. It is fitting, then, that Xu Bing’s Phoenix would be found here, as the two six-ton, 100-foot sculptures unite distinct symbols, materials, and traditions to create a stunning and otherworldly experience.

Xu Bing was born in China in 1955, and has lived in the United States as well as Beijing. Known for his installation and site-specific work, he was commissioned in 2008 to create a sculpture for the atrium of a commercial finance center that was in development in Beijing. During a visit to the construction site, he was taken aback by the working conditions, which inspired him to collect construction debris from the site to construct two large phoenixes, a 100 foot male named Feng, and a 90 foot female, Huang, in accordance with Chinese traditions. The sculptures took two years and were ultimately displayed in the Today Art Museum in Beijing instead of the building’s atrium, later being shown in Shanghai at the World Expo and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Today, the phoenixes can be found in what is perhaps their most unusual home yet, in the 230-foot-long and 124-foot-high nave of the Cathedral.

The phoenixes seem to swim through the space, their sinuous shapes creating the illusion of fluid movement. The Cathedral’s literature attests that the piece “soars as if in its own private chamber, and the Cathedral becomes, for a split second, an emperor’s aviary.” That the pieces, constructed from construction materials, appear so regal is a testament to their inspired design. The intricate working of metals and fabrics, as well as the strings of lights intertwined throughout, create mosaics of lights and colors that reflect the architecture of the Cathedral, with its Gothic spires, detailed moldings and perhaps most resonant of all, its richly colored stained glass. Even the repurposing of waste materials into art reflects other pieces around the cathedral, like the cross of the FDNY memorial dedicated to firefighters killed in 1966, and later, in the attacks on September 11th which is made of remains from various sites of fires.

Though the construction materials are reminders of urban development, industrial waste, and environmental degradation, they have been transformed into something ethereal and transcendent. The phoenixes appear as timeless companions, at home in their environment and yet simultaneously like beings from another world. The phoenix is a symbol across cultures of the cycle of death and rebirth. In Jewish Midrash, interpretations of the Torah, the phoenix, named as Milcham, is the only animal not to eat the forbidden fruit and is thus rewarded with 1000 years of peace. As in many of the legends of this mythical creature, at the end of its allotted years the phoenix is said to be consumed by fire and reborn once more from the ashes. In Christian traditions, the phoenix is seen as a symbol of resurrection and of Christ. Throughout many Chinese traditions, it is regarded as a celestial being related to the myth of creation. It is said to have thrown itself on a great fire to extinguish it and been rewarded with immortality, and is therefore a symbol of great sacrifice as well as reincarnation and rebirth. Its closely related symbol, the element of fire, is also associated with these ideas, as a powerful and ever-living force that is life-giving as well as dangerous. Creation and destruction, death and rebirth, exploitation and sacrifice are all themes present in Xu Bing’s work. The transformation of recycled materials into beautiful works of art also speaks of environmental justice and spiritual renewal, making Phoenix perfectly at home in a Cathedral devoted to activism, art, and spiritual life.

xu bing side detail

Phoenix will be on view until January 2015, during the Cathedral’s regular hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. The Cathedral offers programs for adults as well as children, such as tours with views from above and discussions on themes of environmental and economic justice, and a Creative Building Workshop which invites children to build their own phoenix from recycled materials. For more information, visit the Cathedral’s website.

- E. G. for MOBIA

xu bing wing detail

Fountains of the Deep: Visions of Noah and the Flood

Coinciding with the release of his new feature film, Noah, director Darren Aronofsky presents an exhibition of contemporary art inspired by the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. Fountains of the Deep includes work from 50 internationally recognized artists and is a collaborative effort between Aronofsky and independent curator Dominic Teja Sidhu. The filmmaker personally chose each work of art on display and commissioned many of the artists to create original work specifically for the exhibition: “While writing the script for Noah, I wondered how my favorite artists would interpret the iconic text. So I decided to ask a few of them to return to Genesis and create an image of their own.”

Identifying the story of Noah as humanity’s first apocalyptic tale seems to be the central premise of this exhibition. Genesis 6-9 depicts a world very different from the one we know, and yet its themes of survival, redemption, and new beginnings are entirely familiar. The Creator turns his back on his creation and vows to wipe mankind off the face of the Earth. Yet God has mercy on Noah and instructs him to build an ark that will house himself, his family, and two of every animal that lives on land. Noah does as God commands and though the Earth is flooded by rain for forty days and forty nights, God delivers him from this terrible fate. Noah and his sons are then blessed by God and ordered to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth” (Genesis 9:1).  It is a story that is grim and miraculous in the most extreme ways and one which remains exceedingly influential on the arts.

Doug and Mike Starn, Bbú Juju painting MV4

Doug and Mike Starn, Bbú Juju painting MV4

Fountains of the Deep encompasses a great range of genres and media, from painting, sculpture, and photography to commercial illustration and graffiti. In David Scher’s grayscale painting Noah Noah a boat sits stranded atop an island of debris. The image depicts a cloudy, melancholy world in which humanity is left to deal with the consequences of a natural disaster. The work by artists (and identical twin brothers) Doug and Mike Starn titled Bbú Juju painting MV4 gives off a sense of both tragedy and hope. On one hand, the Starn brothers have used bamboo and rope to construct a jumbled object that appears to be in a state of wreckage. Then again, the assembled bamboo resembles a makeshift raft, a symbol for human resourcefulness and survival.

James Jean, Noah

James Jean, Noah

The lower-level gallery is filled with work that is perhaps more unexpected considering the Old Testament-derived theme of the show. Kagen Sound, a woodworker from Colorado known for his Japanese-style secret boxes, designed a box from 59,003 tiny wooden cubes measuring exactly one cubit, the unit of measurement designated by God to be used in the construction of the ark (Genesis 6:15). Commercial artist James Jean interprets the figure of Noah as a sort of allegory of human frailty; the exposed body bleeding into the ocean is painted in the bright, swirling colors for which the Taiwanese painter is known. A bold graphic style is also employed by graffiti duo FAILE in Never Before, Never Again, a collage of images and text referencing both the environmental and emotional impact of the Flood.

Thomas Thiemeyer, Building the Ark

Thomas Thiemeyer, Building the Ark

Thomas Thiemeyer provides viewers with a very cinematic imagining of the Building of the Ark, which perhaps best anticipates Aronofsky’s film. Thiemeyer is a German author and illustrator whose works have a strong narrative quality and a highly polished fantastical look to them. This particular painting places the ark in sort of sci-fi landscape—a wild world populated by giants and other mythical creatures. The epic nature of the scene reminds us of the monumental impact the story of Noah has had on our culture and how it continues to inspire the visual arts.

Noah lower level 2

Fountains of the Deep is on view at 462 West Broadway through Saturday, March 29.

Noah will premiere in theaters worldwide on Friday, March 28.

- D.L. for MOBIA

John Bradford’s “Biblical Space: Recent Works”

Biblical Space: Recent Works, currently on view at the Bowery Gallery in Chelsea, features artist John Bradford’s latest depictions of biblical narratives in a series of paintings that blur the line between the figurative and the abstract.  Bradford, a founding member of the Bowery Gallery, has addressed the stories of the Old Testament in his work for over 30 years. In his most recent paintings, the artist continues his self-assigned task of illustrating the imagery of the Old Testament in a manner that communicates both the content of the text and the imaginary visual space in which these stories play out.  In the artist’s words, his reimagining of these scenes which artists through the centuries have interpreted in their own styles, aims to reveal how “the modernity of the West owes a fundamental debt to Judaism.”

It may appear at first when looking at these large canvases that Bradford’s intention is a literal depiction of the biblical textEach composition is staged in a manner similar to the history paintings from European academies that hang on the walls of our museums.  Yet Bradford’s modernist handling of paint takes the pictures a step away from the natural world into that which cannot be so easily discerned.  It is an approach which cleverly reckons with our cultural understanding of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, which we envision to take place in our world, but in a time and place far removed from us. The spare text of the Old Testament sets strict boundaries and yet leaves the mind to construct the visual details of the narrative on its own.

“When attempting to paint Old Testament narratives with any degree of relevance, it is necessary to represent both a naturalistic space deep enough for nation building to unfold, but also to represent the flat, austere, discontinuous space of Biblical structure in which yearning, corruption, righteousness and redemption are at play. My solution to this duality is to allow the different spaces to legislate for themselves while submitting myself to the sovereign laws of painting, which celebrate the distinctions, separations, and boundaries within a unitary rectangular format.” – John Bradford

Bradford’s paintings build up from broad fields of color to lively figures rendered by simple

Korah's Rebellion

Korah’s Rebellion

brushstrokes. He experiments with texture by painting in layers and using a gloss to thicken the pigment in places where he would like there to be an added element of dimension. Sometimes his glazes thin out, but at times they are thick enough to scratch away and create a relief.  One painting in particular, Korah’s Rebellion, shows the effect the painter achieves when a canvas is worked on considerably.

Korah’s Rebellion is composed like a landscape, framed by trees and populated by figures reduced to a role secondary to the space. Numbers 16 tells the story of when the envious Korah rose against his cousins, Moses and Aaron, and challenged their authority, which was granted to them by God.  Moses tried to quell the rebellion, but when Korah and his allies did not budge, Moses prayed to God that their wicked ways would be known to the world. The next day, when the two parties had agreed to meet before the tabernacle, God ordered the Israelites to separate themselves from Korah as he and his men met the consequences of their revolt:

And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation (Numbers 16: 32-33)

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

Bradford illustrates the scene in a manner that makes it recognizable to a viewer familiar with the story, but does not ground it in reality by creating the illusion of real space or naturalistic figures. In a more minimally designed work like The Garden of Eden we can see how effective the ambiguity of the world of the painting is in conveying the significance of the narrative. The figures of Adam and Eve are present at the crucial moment when the serpent will deceive them, but the drama of the scene is not heightened by emotional expressions or effects of light; it is the simple act of Eve stretching her arms to reach for the fruit above her that clarifies the importance of what is taking place. The saturated green of the background stands in contrast to the muted colors of the rest of the artwork in the room, showing the perceptible difference between the human world before and after the Fall of Man.

Biblical Space: Recent Works is on view at the Bowery Gallery (530 West 25th Street) through February 22, 2014.

- D.L. for MOBIA

The Golden Calf

The Golden Calf

Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s “The Fifth Day”

“The fifth day also tells of great whales and winged fowl. In the fragment at the top of Giotto’s fresco as we see St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. The abundance and diversity of a flock of birds gathered together in groups has inspired me to a form that is recognizable in my new series of pictures. It is the outlines of the flocks of birds in movement as I experienced them in the area where I grew up by the Danish coast. Here, thousands of birds would congregate to migrate together, some to the south and some to the north. There was a constant movement and constant change in the shape and colour play in the group. I have often seen this spectacle, in which birds soar up and fill the air with joy and with a start and finish in constant change like waves in the ocean as they constantly start anew. The paintings attempt to show this structure and must be seen as an approach to the moment of creation that is not a figurative representation, but a vision.”

- Maja Lisa Engelhardt, on her personal development of the show


Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s The Fifth Day, currently on display at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea, explores the idea that the days of Creation prior to communication (which happens on Day Six when God speaks with man) can only be depicted abstractly rather than through figurative representation. Throughout over 30 works Engelhardt expresses a variety of abstract visions that convey the experience of this particular day of Creation.

The Fifth Day of Creation in the Book of Genesis reads as follows:

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. – Genesis 1.20-23

Focused on the creation of the birds and fish on Earth, Engelhardt’s artwork  utilizes a wide variety of colors to explore the chaos of her visions.  Deep texture highlights the artist’s process of layering paint as she develops each work.  Throughout the exhibit the viewer is able to follow Engelhardt as she experiences the confusion and discovery that come with her envisioning the creative process of God through the filter of her own artistic rendering.

The three pieces presented in sequence below show little consistency in brushstroke or color, yet they each illustrate moments in Engelhardt’s overall creative process. The center painting contains a rich purple with vertical sections that acts in contrast to the pastels and horizontal brushstrokes evident in the two others. All three works are examples of the abstract visions that Engelhardt experiences, and they highlight her inability to create a concrete image of the Fifth Day. This variety is not due to confusion on the artist’s part, but rather to the endless possibilities of abstract representation that the day has.

Compare the power of using abstraction to represent the Creation, as Engelhardt does, to a more explicit rendering, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Though the latter does not depict the Fifth Day specifically, his figural representations of Adam and Eve, and the intangible being of God, have endured in our cultural consciousness.  Engelhardt reacts to this, finding a new way to examine and explain the text of Genesis, which itself has always been read both literally and abstractly.

The Fifth Day is on view at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery (529 W. 20th St.) through November 30, 2013. The gallery has hosted Engelhardt’s other shows, The Second Day (2007), The Third Day (2009), and The Fourth Day (2009).

Be sure to catch the only contemporary biblical show happening in Chelsea right now – it’s worth the trip.

- E.W. for MOBIA

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Glencairn Museum and the Sacred Arts Festival


On a picturesque Sunday at the end of April, Glencairn Museum held an event that brought together various age-old artistic traditions for the public to observe and enjoy up close.  The Sacred Arts Festival, one of four annual festivals put on by the Glencairn staff, successfully celebrated, with the help of an excited community, the continuation of arts important to worship.

Glencairn, located in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia, was the family home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn.  Under construction from 1928 to 1939, it was built in the Romanesque style, complete with a great hall, a tower, and a private chapel where the Pitcairn family would gather for post-supper prayers, the design of which was modeled on the mosaics of Ravenna, Italy.  After Mildred’s death in 1979, the estate became a museum with a collection of art from all over the world.  The main house’s stone walls are made of granite, most of the doors are carved from teak, and painted portraits of family members are featured along with stained glass panels depicting biblical figures like Aaron, Melchizedek, and David.

The Sacred Arts Festival featured a full schedule of tempting activities.  Stationed outside the entrance to the museum were glassblowers from Historical Glassworks in Mt. Gretna, PA., an exciting starting point on a sunny day.  Crowds watched demonstrations of how glass is heated and shaped into vessels and various objects, many of which were for sale.  As I perused the wares based on ancient Roman pottery and glasswork (some of which could be viewed inside the museum), I was told that Historical Glassworks made glass pieces for the upcoming movie Pompeii.

Inside the great hall, visitors were free to explore a space built in the twentieth century based entirely on a romantic vision of the medieval past.  In one corner a stone Mary felt the belly of her pregnant cousin Elizabeth; in another, antique instruments were displayed as if at any moment someone might pick them up and fill the hall with a merry tune.  All of the art amassed by the Pitcairn family was exhibited with the reverence commanded of an interesting collection, but in this once domestic space, it felt intimate and comfortable.

At the center of the great hall, among stone reliefs, statues, and tapestries, was Venerable Lama Losang Samten with a work of his creation, a Tibetan mandala, an ancient art form of sand painting.  This mandala (a Sanskrit term for a circular representation of spiritual truths) was created prior to the Festival and was available for viewing throughout the event.  At 4:00, the mandala was dismantled, the sand swept away before an eager crowd, an action meant to represent the transient nature of life on earth.  Samten and his gorgeous mandala were a popular stop throughout the entire festival.

Also on view was the exhibition Windows Into Heaven: The Icons of Susan Kelly vonMedicus.  This small but moving display of icons was at first notable because of the way it translated an ancient but pertinent sacred art form into something more relatable for this modern Western viewer.  It was touching to see traditionally depicted figures like the Transfigured and Crucified Christ surrounded by beautiful English script.  It perfectly exemplified what the Sacred Arts Festival itself was promoting – that these artistic expressions, while no longer common, are still resonant, especially in terms of our encounter with the divine through art.

vonMedicus herself was stationed nearby, answering questions about the nature of her work and demonstrating her skill.  To see an icon as a work-in-progress was a true treat and fostered an even greater respect for the artisan and the patience and precision that goes into her craft.  (Fun fact: vonMedicus is the niece of Grace Kelly, and she recently gifted the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Monaco, where her aunt was princess, with an icon commissioned by her cousin, Prince Albert III, to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the archdiocese of Monaco.)

The rest of the museum is a fascinating example of how to display a collection of art and artifacts while also honoring the intriguing lives of the collectors.  The former purposes of the rooms lingers in what are now gallery spaces – for example, the medieval gallery is the bedroom of one of Raymond and Mildred’s sons (they had nine children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.  Before she died in 1979, Mildred had 57 grandchildren, and a necklace with each of their names on it).  The master bedroom has been kept intact, with family photographs, Christmas cards taken in the great hall, and two specially commissioned pieces of furniture.  The bed is carved with an excerpt from a prayer special to the Pitcairns: “Unite our hearts in love to one another and to Thee.  Give us one heart, one mind, one way.  Grant us knowledge to see Thy way and power to do Thy will”; the cradle beside the bed is fit for a fairytale prince or princess, carved into the shape of a castle and enclosed by a velvet curtain.  Off of the master bedroom is the library, featuring a vast array of books, medieval tapestries, and, on that particular day, the henna artist Jumana.  Both children and adults lined up to watch demonstrations and receive body art of their own.

GCM Cradle

There was even more excitement to be found in the halls of Glencairn throughout the day.  A visitor could relax with dessert in the dining area, talk to a stone carver stationed in the museum’s breathtaking tower, or attend a stained glass painting workshop.  There was no shortage of enlightening and enjoyable activities in which to partake.

Philadelphia is a city brimming with history and art, but if you have the time, it is well worth it to make the journey to Bryn Athyn to see Glencairn Museum.

- T.C. for MOBIA

(All photos are courtesy of Glencairn Museum, used with permission.  Special thanks to Joralyn Echols for her assistance.)

MOBIA Supports Public Art!

This week MOBIA staff took some time to experience Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus in Columbus Circle, just down the block from MOBIA. We were all happily surprised to see that Columbus has a view of MOBIA and immediately crestfallen when we realized his back was turned to us. Despite this, we did have fun. Here’s our scrapbook of sorts:

“I was really impressed with his legs! I thought about all the days of rain, snow and heat and the amount of environmental wear the sculpture has endured. And I thought about all the people who have passed by and not had the opportunity for an up close view.”

 “I never noticed the sassy pose of Christopher Columbus before.”

“My favorite detail was a miniature statue of a rearing horse placed near Columbus’ feet. It stood no taller than a pair of scissors balanced on end and its delicate, exuberant body made quite a comical contrast with the massive, earnest figure of the explorer.”

“Felt like a real room, and didn’t seem to bother anyone (including me) that we were 6 floors above ground supported by metal tinker toys. The giant sculpture/monument maybe helped to make think you were in a room that could support all that weight. According to the website, this is the point where all distances from NY are measured. Like if your town is 10 miles from NY, it’s 10 miles from Columbus circle. I don’t know anyone who would assume that that was where you measured from, I thought it was Times Square, but it felt like it when you look down all the avenues from up there.”

 “I was struck by the sheer size of the statue, which helped to emphasize the importance of perspective.”

“I was stunned to see the famous statue of Christopher Columbus poking through a coffee table!”


 “I think this is a wonderful way of transforming badly needed conservation treatment into an unforgettable visual experience. I never realized just how beautiful Columbus’ statue is and what impact New York weather had upon it. The new setting brought it closer to me both physically and emotionally.”


 “What’s Chris reading? Dave Egger’s Zeitoun, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and What the Dog Saw, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Flora Miller Biddle’s, The Whitney Women, The History of Philosophy, and several books on baseball suggesting that Chris frequents The Strand, airport bookstands and perhaps a solid used bookstore.”

“Christopher Columbus has been a watchful eye over many of my New York comings-and-goings since I first arrived in the city.  So it was a truly humbling moment for me to understand that someone’s artistic concept had allowed me, for probably the only time in my life, a chance to stand beside this stone giant and see just how the city – its air, its weather, its automobiles – has transformed this looming presence over time.  Even Columbus cannot remain unaffected by New York.”

 “Never thought I would see Christopher Columbus, Mickey Mouse, Elvis, and Michael Jackson in a room together.”

And though we were saddened that the Met’s The American Wing was the sole book about America’s decorative arts to make it onto Chris’s coffee table (where was MOBIA’s Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion?), we really loved the opportunity to spend some time in the statue’s space. And his T.V.

Check out Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus on view until November 18. You need to secure timed tickets (free!) and you may need to wait in line for a bit, but even in this remarkable city there’s nothing else like it. Then stop by MOBIA to see Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of the Devotion. It’s free and there’s nothing else like it in the city either.

- The MOBIA Staff

Review: Chagall

WHERE: The Nassau County Museum of Art (One Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, New York)

WHEN: July 21-November 4

Comprised of approximately 100 paintings, drawings, and prints, Chagall at the Nassau County Museum of Art (thru November 4th) offers a broad perspective on this seminal twentieth-century artist’s work.

Chagall (1887-1985) was born in Russia into a religiously observant Jewish family, but his affinity for France, his adopted country, and his desire not to be pigeon-holed as solely a Jewish artist drove him to depict a wide array of subjects. The breadth of Chagall’s interests is effectively conveyed here, as circus performers are juxtaposed with floral bouquets and religious subjects – both Jewish and Christian.

Perhaps most striking is a series of three Crucifixions painted at various stages of Chagall’s long career. The central and smallest of the three, which dates from 1975-80, features the scene bathed in expressionistic yellow, while the earlier yet equally expressionistic Le peintre et le Christ (1938-40) portrays Chagall himself at the feet of Christ, who is covered in a Jewish prayer shawl, a tallit. The third scene, more somber in color, features figures suspended in mid-air (including the artist himself, who is upside down), a characteristic of Chagall’s figural compositions. In all three, as well as in a fourth Crucifixion scene in one of the other gallery rooms, Chagall conveys his belief in the universality of Jesus’ suffering.

The exhibition features 50 of the 105 hand-colored etchings from Chagall’s 1957 Bible Series, on loan from the Haggerty Museum, including many that were featured in MOBIA’s Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling in 2008-09, but it is the paintings that steal the show.

Although the exhibit would have benefited from a clearly articulated theme, the beauty of the works coupled with the setting – the former Bryce House, a mansion in Roslyn Harbor once purchased by Henry Clay Frick – more than compensates for this.

- A.R. for MOBIA