The words magic and machine share the same Indo European root: magh-, ¨to be able, to have power.¨
To some degree, our idea of machines has always been invested with a sense of magic. To the lay public, technological objects, whose inner workings remain hidden or are too complex to trace, appear to function by trickery or by a mysterious supernatural impulse.
The hidden element that allows a machine to work can provoke a sense of wonder and a religious mixture of awe and dread akin to what David Nye calls ¨the technological sublime.¨
Xu Bing’s art installation, ¨Phoenix,¨ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, seems to lift from these correspondences. Built from raw materials and debris found on construction sites in Beijing, two machine-like birds soar, by some inexpressible power, within the cathedral’s nave.
Physically, culturally, for better or for worse, these phoenixes defy expectations of what is possible.