I confess a bad habit; I read the final sentence of books before I finish them. Now, I don’t typically think too much about this, it’s simply something I do. Not coming to the final sentence by natural progression, as part of the story, removes its context. Therefore, it’s just as ambiguous as any other random sentence. Stories, typically, are about some kind of journey- not over time or space, necessarily- but effective stories do take us somewhere. It’s this journey that captivates me, and Xu Bing’s 9 Deaths, 2 Births is a sojourn worth such charm.
Xu Bing constructed two immense phoenixes (titled: Phoenix), which took over two years to complete. Phoenix endured in spite of economic flows and ebbs, changes in the tastes of patrons, and construction prohibition (due to the Olympics, of all things). Finally it was completed through an act of benevolent fortune. It’s this journey which is documented via film, ideation and inspirational relics at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Museum. Although dwarfed in physical scale by the finished pieces, this exhibit is motivating in terms of perseverance and the uncompromising ideals of Xu Bing and his inspiration for Phoenix.
The substantiation of process in this exhibit consists of drawings, instructions and models. These artifacts of ideation are wrinkled, torn, perforated by push-pins, taped together (or bear old tape) and- in the case of the models- broken. They provide a tangible record of the development leading to the final product, and in doing so offer an analogy to the ephemeral nature of memory. If we aren’t reminded, we tend to forget; it’s the interest of history to remind us of character, while it’s in the interest of the journey to provide us with character.
The final product, Phoenix, is installed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). The two enormous sculptures (each 90-100 feet long) are magnificent- the coalescence of an arduous project, and a suitable resolution to the inspiring story of 9 Deaths, 2 Births. The final sentence puts an ending on a great story, and what is an ending without a journey?
9 Deaths, 2 Births is on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Museum through September 2, 2013. Phoenix is on display at MASS MoCA through October 27, 2013. For further information, please visit (respectively):