Phoenix, Work, and the Challenge of True Hope

Phoenix“, captured by David McSpadden at The Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City.

Originally, artist Xu Bing was commissioned to create an atrium piece for a high-rise building in Beijing. But, as he visited the construction site, he was deeply affected by the conditions of work and the lives of the workers themselves. The project pivoted, and the result, eventually, was a pair of six-ton mythical birds, made from castoffs from construction sites around Beijing.

Titled Phoenix 2008–2010, the birds flew headlong into controversy. For many commentators, the arrangement of unwanted iron girders, scaffolding, jackhammers, and plastic safety hats and cones brought to the fore the cost to millions of migrant workers of China’s meteoric development. And indeed, it’s a strength of the piece that it reworks the waste of this labour into a vivid testament to their suffering, and the fact that few such workers enjoy the prosperity they’ve helped to build. But Xu Bing’s decision to respond artfully to these complexities by creating two beautiful phoenix points to deeper cultural and more dangerous, ideological narrative.

Indeed, to truly understand how controversial the artwork is, one has to understand the power and symbolism of a Chinese phoenix. Feng Huang, or Chinese phoenix, do not rise from ashes like a western phoenix, but they are an auspicious symbol, combining the spiritual, economic, and the political. Their arrival heralds a new golden era for society. They pronounce the mandate of heaven. They proclaim the existence of virtue: justice, loyalty, credibility, and mercy. With this cultural understanding in mind, Phoenix not only challenges us to see the costs exacted on faraway workers by economic development or our consumption, but the symbolic artwork also proclaims an earthly kingdom. It’s a kingdom that has raised 100 million people out of poverty, but it is also a kingdom where people seek humanity’s perfection through hard work. Humanity, the belief runs, can save itself. This should give us pause.

Phoenix“, captured by David McSpadden at The Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City.

As such, the existence of this massive and ambivalent artwork invites us to ask: are we, too, guilty of building our own mini-phoenix? The construction is often subtle and goes unnoticed. We use the short-term fruit of long hours at work. It could be an unseen-and-almost-but-not-quite-unethical business decision. It might be the wrong choice, justified in the moment by arguing that the ends will justify the means. Taken singly, such matters appear small and  might be readily discarded. But they entail a cost, and, viewed together across the course of a life, will reveal one or other cobbled-together image of salvation, images that—like Xu Bing’s choice of the Feng Huang, the phoenix—will point ultimately not to a living hope, to a true salvation, but to the unstable improvisations of humanity’s kingdoms.

So even as Phoenix asks us to examine again how—and at whose expense—we come by the goods and wealth we enjoy, Xu Bing’s conflicted vision also causes us to ask more important questions: in all our working, whose kingdom are we really building? Where does our salvation truly come from?