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

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang staged a pyrotechnic display in honor of Sackler's 25th anniversary and Art in Embassies' 50th anniversary. He is pictured after the event. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Here’s what it was supposed to look like:

Sketch for “Explosion Event,” Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957, Quanzhou, China; lives in New York) 2012. Pencil and marker on printed paper. Collection of the artist. (Cai Guo-Qiang/The Sackler Gallery)