Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing's Phoenix Project
Chinese artist Xu Bing spent more than two years creating his newest work, Phoenix Project, a massive installation on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). At once strange and fiercely beautiful, the installation comprises two birds fabricated entirely from materials found at construction sites in Beijing. This complementary exhibition at the Sackler traces the evolution of Phoenix Project. Reimagining an ancient Chinese motif, Xu offers a view of the “new China” and the labor conditions that support its massive commercial and spatial development. While the sculpture itself remains at MASS MoCA, the Sackler exhibition features materials used to plan the work, including drawings, scale models, and reconfigured construction fragments. Also on view are related objects selected by the artist from the Freer and Sackler collections.
Reinventing the Wheel: Japanese Ceramics 1930–2000
Modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics were among the first of many new directions in collecting made possible by the opening of the Sackler Gallery in 1987. Today, the Sackler collection represents significant trends in Japanese ceramics since the 1930s, when traditional workshop masters took on new roles as studio potters alongside artists in other media. Potters at regional kilns revived ancient firing and glazing technology for use in expressive new vessel forms. In postwar Kyoto, ceramic artists departed from conventional ideas of function to create sculptural forms. Today’s potters sample at will from these trends, blending meticulous skill with daring reinterpretations of shapes and materials. This installation of highlights spans legendary Living National Treasures to young virtuosos of the present day.
Xu Bing: Monkeys Grasping for the Moon
Monkeys Grasping for the Moon is a suspended sculpture designed specifically for the Sackler Gallery by Chinese artist Xu Bing (born 1955), as part of an October 2001 exhibition of his work titled Word Play: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing. The popular temporary display was re-created to permanently remain at the Sackler, with craftspeople from the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central working with Xu and Sackler staff to engineer and fabricate the complex artwork. Composed of twenty-one laminated wood pieces, each of which forms the word “monkey” in one of a dozen languages, the linked vertebrates flow from the sky-lit atrium through the Gallery’s stairwell down to the reflecting pool on the bottom level. A panel on every floor of the museum guides visitors through the represented languages, which include Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool lying beneath them.
Xu Bing’s monumental sculpture is presented by the family of Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Chiang Soong Mayling, 1898–2003) in commemoration of her historic visits to the Joint Session of Congress in 1943 and a memorable return to the U.S. Capitol in 1995.