Before Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang set off a series of explosions in a 40-foot Christmas tree in front of the Freer and Sackler Galleries on Friday, he sounded a bit disappointed: “I was hoping for a bigger tree,” he said through an interpreter.
He wasn’t the only one who was let down. Hundreds of spectators turned out for one of the artist’s famous explosion events. But shifting winds turned the ethereal tree of smoke the artist thought would materialize after the explosion into tendrils of amorphous black smoke.
Shortly after 3 p.m., the assembled crowd counted down with Cai for a series of explosions. First, smoke from the tree-bottom to top; then fire, intended to look like sparkling ornaments; and finally, smoke and fire simultaneously, intended to create a sort of photo-negative ghost of a Christmas tree, with black smoke and fiery light. An abstract plume was the result. “Now it looks like a Chinese ink painting,” Cai said.
Because Cai’s explosions lasted only a few seconds and produced more smoke than light, bystanders and those watching the event live online took to Twitter to complain that they had hoped for a Michael Bay level of pyrotechnics. Many had perhaps expected that the tree would be blown to bits, when the plan all along had been to leave the tree intact.
Wonder if tree explosion dude realizes that was the lamest thing in the history of art, or if he's out there somewhere deluding himself.— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) November 30, 2012
Tuned in to see a tree explosion. Missed the explosion, apparently so did the tree.— Daniel Bentley (@DJBentley) November 30, 2012
I missed the exploding tree thing, but I'm hoping it's the Archduke Ferdinand of the War on Christmas.— Jamison Foser (@jamisonfoser) November 30, 2012
the exploding tree made me cry dot tumblr dot com— Lisa McIntire (@LisaMcIntire) November 30, 2012
After the event, inspectors hosed down the still-smoking tree, which was surrounded by a ring of charcoal, looking rather charred. (It will be re-planted elsewhere, according to officials at the Sackler.) Those who stood on the west side of the tree were looking a bit smoky, too: Bits of charcoal rained down on their faces and hair.
Here’s what it was supposed to look like: