â€śThe light box is called the ‘Background Story,’ and once patrons and the public understand the back story in terms of the works’ original creation in China and then our efforts in bringing them to the United States and displaying them at MASS MoCA, I think that makes it all the more amazing.â€ť –Richard Criddle
Richard Criddle, MASS MoCA Director of Fabrication and Art Installation, calls the feat of installing Xu Bing: Phoenix “one of the biggest, most ambitious things that we’ve ever done at MASS MoCA.â€ť It’s impossible to look at Xu Bing’s art without wondering what superhuman forces could lift two 12-ton phoenixes and suspend them in midair, assemble thousands of cigarettes into the shape of a tiger-skin rug, and turn plants and shadows into a Chinese landscape â€śpainting.â€ť (â€śBecause I have a voice out of Harry Potter, sometimes they also expect me to have a magic wand,â€ť Criddle says.) Here, he describes the shipment and installation of Xu Bing’s amazing phoenixes.
Slow boat from China
It’s often said that the art was transported via â€śthe slow boat from China.â€ť The shipping company had a website where we could track its progress. (It rather reminded me of going back to England. On the plane, whenever I go back, it always seems to take forever for that little plane on the video screen on the seat in front to get anywhere near the old country.) We were patiently keeping an eye on where the boat was. It chugged slowly across the Pacific, and then it came down through the Panama Canal and into the Gulf of Mexico. It first docked at Corpus Christi in Texas. Then it had to chug around the peninsula of Florida and up the East Coast.
The boat ultimately arrived in Philadelphia. It docked there because the crates into which the phoenixes were packed do not conform to containerized standard dimensions. There are very few ports left in the country that can deal with non-containerized sea cargo. Those crates then had to clear customs. MASS MoCA employed a shipping broker to expedite that process. We also hired a trucking company based in New Jersey, which seemed to take its time making its way to MASS MoCA. (I put that as politely as I can.)Â When something like thatâ€”on top of shipping issues and even weather issuesâ€”is outside of your control, the frustration really builds up. Once we finally got the art here and started to wrangle with the various components, it was incredibly hard work and a challenge and a test, but that was welcomed after a protracted period of frustration.
Making an entrance
When the trucks did arrive on site, we had to negotiate the back gate and then get them over the steel bridge and into Courtyard D. Once in the courtyard, two fork trucks would come in from either side at the center of these huge crates and lift them up in the air, and then the truck would drive out from underneath. We would then lower the crates back down to the ground and, with those same fork trucks, maneuver them to be aligned with our big cargo door, which is on the second floor. That door is about 12 feet high and just under 24 feet wide. Just about all of these crates had to come longways into the building; because the smallest of them were about 30 feet long, they couldn’t fit sideways. We engaged a crane operator and a professional crew of riggers. (They’re the people who give directions to the crane operator and make sure that all of the slings and lifting equipment are securely and properly attached to the crates.)
The crates were lifted up, and swung, and pushed into the building. They were then placed onto dollies. (We actually killed a lot of our furniture dollies. They were flattened by the weight. I need to replace some wheels.) The crates are big plywood boxes that are reinforced with bolted and welded channel iron around them. If it werenâ€™t for that iron superstructure around the crates, theyâ€™d basically fall apart. Inside of the crates are a whole variety of different forms of jigs and structures that hold the various components of the phoenixes in position. They filled up Building 5 fast. You think, It’s two stories high and the size of an American football field, but it fills up quickly when a â€śsmallâ€ť crate is 32 feet long and 5 feet wide and 4 feet high. The crates were then pushed and maneuvered around the room, often using the fork lift trucks that we had up in the gallery. We took the forks off of the fork trucks and brought them up in the elevator. (Those fork trucks are carefully selected to be within the elevator’s weight capacity.)Â In that particular gallery, because it has a concrete floor, we could buzz around all over the place. Just like any other project, moving the first couple of crates around was sort of a rehearsal, getting the hang of it. We really got quite nifty at moving things around as time went on.
Two of these enormous crates containing tail sections only arrived at 8 o’clock the morning before the exhibition opened, and they still had to be craned into the building and then unpacked. Some of these crates, to purely pluck the lid off, require two chain falls to be put up into the ceiling.Â (Chain falls are ratchet-operated chain hoists.) Think of the crates as enormous shoeboxes; to take the lid off of a 32-foot-long shoebox, you have to have two chain falls up in the air to lift the lid off, and then you need to move the crate out from underneath the lifted lid in order to get what’s inside.
We had to buy chain falls in bulk. It’s quite strange, really, because for previous exhibitions and installations here, we’ve gotten by with four chain falls that I use over and over again. All of a sudden I’m buying ten times that many: 40 chain falls for a single job. It seemed quite bizarre. Most of them are one-ton chain falls that we bought especially for this project, but we also utilized three or four heavier-grade chain falls that support the main body sections because one ton wasn’t enough. Take, for instance, the body of a phoenix that’s made from a salvaged cement mixing drum; a one-ton chain fall wouldn’t pick that up, so we had to use a three- or four-ton chain fall. The phoenixes are now supported from the ceiling by 43 chain falls.
There are currently 43 pieces of walled, 21-foot-long, 3/16thÂ of an inch thick square, steel tubing up in the ceiling above the beams that makes a sort of grid supporting the phoenixes. We basically took the rigging diagrams from China that we were supplied with, laid the points out on the floor, and then used a laser plumb bob to project those points up onto the ceiling. We hung all of the rigging points prior to the phoenixes’ arrival, working with a consulting engineer to make sure the loads were properly dispersed and that we remained within the building’s structural capacities. We had plenty of time to get this right because we were standing around waiting for trucks, so we did a tremendous amount of advance preparation. All of those rigging points were checked by MASS MoCA’s structural engineer, so we were about as ready as possible when they finally got here, but then it was a bit of a mad dash and a scramble until the end.
Every instruction, in terms of the assembly of the phoenixes, was given by Xu Bing’s brother who had put the pieces together before. His instructions were in Chinese, which were translated into English by Xu Bing’s assistant and translator, Jesse Coffino. That indirect communication added another dimension of time to everything. In the heat of the moment, while carrying out complicated rigging operations, it was often quite hard to understand exactly what was required. My Chinese is nonexistent, and we were all under a lot of pressure to try and get the job done. If you just think of what a gargantuan project it is, and you add all of those aspects that I’ve explained were outside of our control, and then you add a further layer of complexity in terms of just understanding one another, once you’ve grasped all that, it’s really more remarkable.
The major bolting was done in midair. We would lift the pieces up into position, and then one or two scissor lifts would drive into position. Guys in the scissor lifts would have the appropriate wrenches and bolts. The steel and nylon fabric tail sections of the phoenix were bolted on the ground prior to raising them up in the air. Bolting the tail sections was one of the final steps to completing the phoenixes. I’m really glad we stopped with an easy part. (Compared to a lot of what we did on this project, that was definitely in the easy category.) The tails are probably 35 feet long by the time they’re assembled. Some tail pieces are not that heavy and can be picked up by four or five people and moved around manually. Some of the other tail sections that are made out of a whole variety of found objects and fabricated steel needed to be picked up with chain falls or moved with a fork truck. Also, all of the LED lights that illuminate the phoenixes had to be plugged in sequentially. I’m absolutely amazed that the LED lights work, and that they survived all of the handling, engineering, and transport. They all plug in, and we managed to get it lit up like Christmas just before Christmas.
We opened the entire show at 2:00pm on December 22, the day after the final tail sections arrived. We came back to work on Christmas Eve to move out the remaining crates and get them into storage. We just about finished it by Christmas. I’d call that making it by the skin of your teeth.
Â Text transcribed and edited by Maro Elliott, MASS MoCA Development Assistant