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Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has been working with gunpowder and other pyrotechnics since his 1990 “Projects for Extraterrestrials.” An adaptive medium, his explosion events, have been read as a revolt against an oppressive artistic culture in China to a meditation on the powers of creative destruction. But on Friday, all anyone witnessing his explosive lighting ceremony of a live pine tree outside the Sackler Gallery had on their minds was fun.
For the Sackler’s 25th anniversary celebration, the artist, who recently served as the Director of Visual and Special Effects for both the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, rigged a 40-foot tree with 2,000 black smoke drops. Cai hoped to create two trees, one live and one made entirely out of smoke, floating behind the pine before dispersing with the wind.
“You’re probably thinking, have I tried this before? No. So I’ll be undergoing the same emotions as you are, both excited and anxious,” he said, speaking through a translator Tuesday evening at a Sackler press preview.
In a record-setting two weeks, Cai somehow managed to secure the necessary permits for what was being called an “explosion event”–turns out, explosions are generally frowned upon on the National Mall. Working with Grucci Fireworks from Long Island, the artist covered the tree in explosives. Cai explained that the event would have three separate explosions, each “going buh buh buh buh buh.”
Speaking again through his official translator, he told the crowd gathered outside the gallery Friday afternoon, “It’ll be like a tree lighting ceremony, except during the day.”
After the countdown, the first round went off, echoing around the Mall. The black smoke, made from charcoal, shrouded the tree as a second explosion shook it once more. A pause followed as the smoke dissipated. Then the final and loudest burst announced the explosion event’s climax. He told the crowd, “Now it looks like a Chinese ink painting.”
Though Cai famously left his home in Quanzhou, Fujian Province first for Japan before eventually settling in New York City, to pursue creative freedom elsewhere, when he won the International Golden Lion Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, he was the first Chinese artist to do so. Having grown up during, and even participating in, China’s Cultural Revolution, his art often responds to his biography. But “the “Chineseness” in his art is a subject on which Cai is characteristically ambivalent,” according to Arthur Lubow in a 2008 New York Times Magazine piece on the artist.
It was a big day for the artist. Cai arrived at the Sackler just minutes after receiving the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts from Secretary Hillary Clinton and spoke to the crowd afterward about his hope for an open international arts community.
As workers from Grucci fireworks prepared for a three-hour cleanup, Cai and others delighted in the scene of soot and ash around the base of the tree. His favorite part of the event? “Of course, the last moment when you have the tree separating from another tree.”