Cai Guo-Qiang's Explosion Event

Outdoor/Public Art
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Editorial Review

The yule isn’t the only thing that will be blazing for the holidays this season. To celebrate the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary, Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist famous for his Olympic pyrotechnics display and his gunpowder art, will ignite a daytime fireworks show that riffs on the Christmas tree lightings taking place around the country.

At 3 p.m. Friday in front of the Freer Gallery, visitors will be able to see “Explosion Event,” a sparkling display of light and smoke as the artist lights 2,000 custom-made fireworks attached to a 40-foot pine tree. If all goes according to plan, his smoke air buirst fireworks will take the shape of an ethereal tree, which will gently drift away in the wind as it keeps its form.

“I’m thinking about it as reversing a typical Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Instead of seeing lights at night, you see black smoke during the day,” he said, through a translator. ”I’m imaging that after the explosion, the smoke tree will look like a virtual tree. I’m hoping it will look like an ink painting.”

Cai will ignite the tree on the north side of the Freer Gallery of Art. Of the three separate explosions that will take place, the first will last only one-and-a-half seconds, Cai said, “So I’ll make sure to do a countdown so you all aren’t chatting and miss the action.” Next, there will be a series of continuous explosions on the tree, “so it will look as if Christmas tree lights are twinkling all over,” he said. In the final explosion, both smoke and twinkling lights will be activated simultaneously.

“All of the photographers — you should pay attention to the last explosion,” said Cai to a group of reporters. “It’s your last chance at capturing the action. If you do a good job, it will look like a film negative of a Christmas tree at night, except with all of the colors reversed.”

That perfect photo op, though, is entirely dependant on direction of the wind. If the conditions aren’t right, it could create a black cloud instead.

“You’re probably thinking, have I tried this before?” asked Cai. “No. I’ll be undergoing the same emotions as you are — both excited and anxious.”

The smoke is made of charcoal, so it is environmentally-friendly, and the tree will be “very much alive” when the explosion is over. It will be replanted elsewhere, he said.

Cai is in town to receive the first State Department Medal of Arts, along with artists Jeff Koons, Carrie May Weems, Shahzia Sikander and Kiki Smith. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will present the artists with their medals on Nov. 30. Friday’s performance is not Cai’s first in Washington — he created a giant tornado for the Kennedy Center, and brought a massive ship to the Sackler in 2005. His daytime fireworks reference the Chinese invention of gunpowder, utilizing types of colored smoke, rather than light, to be visible during the day.

The artist is using a different title for his work than the museum’s “Explosion Event.” On his Web site, he calls it “Black Christmas Tree,” an association that the Smithsonian may be avoiding, lest it fuel the annual cable news “War on Christmas” coverage. However, Cai’s work is a commentary on the aesthetics of a Christmas tree, not Christianity.

“It happens to be the holiday season, so it makes sense to pick a Christmas tree,” said Cai, “And because there’s the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York, and the tree at Capitol Hill, so I figured, why not add another tree?”