Cai Guo-Qiang’s Fireflies Will Light up Philadelphia

“A thousand years ago, China was very corrupt and chaotic. During the New Year celebrations, it was especially chaotic. This upset the gods. They didn’t like people to indulge too much,” explained artist Cai Guo-Qiang, in his New York City studio. “On the 15th of January, they decided to punish people by putting fire to the city. The god’s daughter was worried and came down to notify the people about the plan. The people lit thousands of lanterns. The god, looking down from the sky, saw the city was already on fire. He was pleased; the job had been done.” While there are many versions of the folk tale that inspired the Chinese Lantern Festival, Cai Guo Qiang connects with this one.

Now, Cai is bringing his story of Chinese lanterns to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Frankin Parkway this September. Fireflies, his first public work since 2009, will bring 27 custom-built, lantern-laden pedicabs up and down the parkway in a choreographed pattern. Seen from above, they will dazzle like a summer evening alive with fireflies.

People will be able to jump on and off for rides. But amid all the fun, Cai seeks to “warn society against the indulgence we are now enjoying.” If we look at the lanterns, “we can guard against that.”

Fireflies digital rendering / Cai Guo-Qiang, 2016, courtesy of Cai Studio

Fireflies is organized by Philadelphia’s excellent Association for Public Art, headed by Penny Balkin Bach, and guest public art curator Lance Fung, founder of Fung Collaborative. Cai was receptive because he knew Philadelphia from his 2009 art work there: Fallen Blossoms, a giant firecracker flower that exploded in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the preview of Fireflies in Cai’s studio in New York City, Balkin Bach said the illuminated art work will bring “new life to the parkway at night, making it a destination.” She said in contrast to Cai’s famous exploding art works, this piece has a lightheartedness.

Cai Guo-Qiang at work / Joanna Austin

Fung said, in the past, “Chinesey-ness was a derogatory term.” But Fireflies makes the stories from Cai’s upbringing, the stories from this gifted Chinese American immigrant, accessible to a wider audience. “Fireflies is social advocacy, with a deep empathy and understanding.”

Cai himself said he was inspired by Benjamin Frankin Parkway, with its rows of flags of countries around the world. “The parkway commemorates the diversity of immigrants.” The light from hundreds of lanterns will “illuminate” the uniquely American melting pot.

Fireflies opens September 14 and runs 6-10 pm, Thursday through Sunday, until October 8. Rides will be free and open to everyone.

See a brief video of this exciting artist’s work:

First video credit: Cai Guo-Qiang Fireflies, video by Studio 33. 

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