The yule log 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, plans to ignite a daytime fireworks show on the Mall that riffs on the Christmas tree lightings taking place around the country.
At 3 p.m. Friday in front of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, visitors will be able to see “Explosion Event,” a sparkling display of light and smoke, as the artist sets off 2,000 custom-made fireworks attached to a 40-foot pine tree. If all goes according to plan, his smoke air-burst 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, speaking through an interpreter. “I’m imagining 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. Of the three separate explosions that will take place, the first will last only 1 1 / 2 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 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 dependent on the 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?” Cai said. “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 Rodham Clinton will present the medals to the artists Friday.
The Sackler 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, both in 2005. His daytime fireworks reference the Chinese invention of gunpowder, using 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.” Allison Peck, the Sackler’s head of public affairs, says that the museum is using a different title because it prepared its press materials far ahead of time.
“The work itself is not necessarily about Christmas,” Peck said. “It has the spirit of a sparkling holiday tree, but it’s more than that. It references his past work; it references Chinese brush drawing; and it’s in honor of our anniversary.”
Cai’s title is considerably darker, though, and it could fuel the annual cable news “War on Christmas” coverage. But the artist said that his explosion 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,” Cai said. “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?”
3 p.m. Friday, in front of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, 1050 Independence Ave. SE. 202-633-1000 or asia.si.edu.