Phoenixes Made from Construction Debris Flying Through NYC

Craft & Design

Nestled at the southern edge of the Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan is the fourth largest church building in the world and the largest in North America, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. And for the remainder of 2014 when you walk into that church you will be greeted by two monumental phoenix sculptures suspended overhead:


The work of contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, the project is titled simply, Phoenix, and both birds are made entirely from construction debris, tools and machinery, and remnants from the lives of Beijing construction workers (including many migrants, traveling from city to city in search of work building buildings).

Originally envisioned for the atrium between two towering skyscrapers, located in Beijing’s Central Business District across the road from the iconic CCTV headquarters, over a couple years the project hit several snags, delays, and concerns about its funding.

But here they are, and they are amazing. Whether you’ll be in town for World Maker Faire later this month, or you have another sojourn to the city of five boroughs planned before the year is out, be sure to put Phoenix and the Cathedral on your itinerary. If this is your first visit to the Cathedral you’ll want to give your visit some time — both the sculptures and this building are something to awe.

Phoenix by Xu Bing

The cathedral spans nearly the length of two football fields, and the ceiling of the nave in which the birds hang measures 124 feet above the floor. Having arrived in NYC after being installed at MASS MoCA last year, the Cathedral is a fitting home for these two birds in flight, and offers the unique opportunity to get above the birds via spiral staircases connecting to balconies surrounding the nave.

Phoenix by Xu Bing


Xu Bing wanted to create a phoenix with “animal ferocity,” a king of the birds, but also like a Transformer toy, with supernatural power.

From The Story of the Phoenix — Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project, 2012, published by Xu Bing Studio

The birds, a male named Feng and a female named Huang, measure 90 and 100 feet long, respectively, and weigh more than 12 tons combined. All that weight is from the detritus and discarded refuse from actual construction sites, collected (and bought) over several years and constructed at Yidong Garden Sculpture Production Center outside of Beijing’s 5th Ring Road towards Tongxian.

Fabricated from vent grates, ducting, hard hats, shovels, and even tent tarp, there’s an underlying armature that everything is welded and bolted to. I’ll admit there are even some materials and forms whose shape or function I couldn’t decipher, belonging to Chinese construction trades that are no doubt unique geographically. You could spend hours rubbernecking up and around, squinting to focus on some particular feature of one of the birds.

Phoenix by Xu Bing

And if it wasn’t already obvious, they’re entirely covered in LEDs from beak to tail, accenting all their major contours. So while the light inside the church is already relatively low, if you really want to see the Phoenix birds lit up, the darker the sky outside the better your viewing experience inside will be. In the following photos I’ve attempted to adjust for the lighting as best I could, but if you’re anywhere near New York you’ll just have to see these in person to really take them in.

Phoenix by Xu Bing


Phoenix by Xu Bing


Phoenix by Xu Bing


Phoenix by Xu Bing


Phoenix by Xu Bing




Read more:

Phoenixes Rise in China and Float in New York — NY Times

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

View more articles by Nick Normal


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