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.
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