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The fabled phoenix rises from junk

TWO colossal phoenixes - made of construction site junk - are suspended from cranes at the Expo's Baosteel Stage, an awe-inspiring symbol of rising China. Wang Jie reports.

Xu Bing, one of the godfathers in Chinese contemporary art, has created a stupendous "Aerial Phoenix" installation of two mythical birds that traditionally symbolize China and its virtue and power.

The pair of birds stretches more than 28 meters long, eight meters wide and weighs 12 tons.

The impression is astounding. The birds have been compared to jet fighters and pterodactyls. Some call them gorgeous and inspiring, others call the work another cliched use of a Chinese symbol in a modern context.

The works are made of metallic construction site junk, including steel bars and plates, chains, pulleys, drills, odd pieces of equipment, pipes and tubes, iron work, safety helmets - all kinds of things that comprise the skyscrapers that symbolize China's progress and modernity. Some of it is broken and rusting, so it seems the immortal phoenixes are wounded.

The geometric angles also give it a feeling of zhizha - a Chinese folk art of pasted-paper sculpture.

Originally the pair were exhibited outdoors in Beijing; in Shanghai they are in a vast enclosed area, where they are also imposing and ominous, floating above visitors.

Xu, who worked in Beijing, was at a loss when a lot of construction was halted for the Olympic Games in 2008; polluting industries were closed, so he had to scavenge around the country and bought construction debris from Henan Province. Then he resumed work.

He also ran out of money during the financial crisis when investors pulled out of what Xu has described as an "irreverent" project. But a Taiwan entrepreneur and art collector stepped in, bought the work and saved the day.

The work was first commissioned for a financial center in Beijing's central business district. Xu says he first thought of using cranes instead of phoenixes, but a fengshui expert advised investors that such an installation would be bad luck.

Xu said earlier, "Built from cheap, construction debris, my phoenix is pretty, aggressive, self-confident but full of scars on the body. It can be read in some way as a symbol of an emerging China."

Some observers say the work represents a tension between wealth and poverty, capital and labor, tradition and modernity, Chinese-ness and globalization.

Born in 1955 in Chongqing, Xu rose to his early fame in the West in the 1980s through his work "Tianshu." In 2008 he was appointed as vice president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Xu said that he was inspired to make the sculpture when he was walking around Beijing during construction for the Olympic Games. He was surprised to see the living conditions and machinery used by the migrant construction workers.

It was hard to believe that dazzling urban landscapes are created by people working in such a harsh environment using such shabby equipment, he said.

The ideal place for his phoenixes, he said, would be a place between skyscrapers in a central business district.

While Xu might be the artist, a million migrant construction workers really built the phoenix.


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