Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
Over the past decade, public art has flourished in our cities. Sculptures and ephemeral performances illuminate our public spaces while questioning societal norms. And when participatory and interactive, public art leaves a long-lasting impression in our minds. This was surely the case for whoever experienced Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Floating Piers in Italy, or Sophie Calle’s Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and it certainly was so for the thousands of viewers that gathered last week in Philadelphia for the international launch and preview of Fireflies, the latest and one of the largest public art projects of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
For some in Philadelphia, Cai might have still been on their minds from the last time he visited in 2009. For his Fallen Blossoms, the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was burned in the shape of a flower in remembrance of its late director Anne d’Harnoncourt.
This time, Cai returns with Fireflies, a piece commissioned by the Association for Public Art with Fung Collaboratives and set to celebrate the centennial of the majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, paying tribute to multiculturalism: “[For the centennial], I wish to give the parkway back to the people and have them participate in this celebration,” said Cai last week.
Shortly after dusk, a fleet of 27 pedicabs —the “fireflies”— paraded up and down the parkway showing off more than 900 lanterns in the shape and color of ice cream cones, helicopters, pandas, boats, aliens, roosters, stars, cats, donuts, and many more. The project was entirely conceived by Cai, from the overall mise-en-scene and the pedicab choreography, to the lantern design. He even chose the musical arrangement, a reimagining of Pennsylvania’s official state anthem. The result was a dreamlike visual symphony, or as Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art, put it, “a huge drawing in light,”
After the performance, Whitewall had the privilege to speak with Cai. Asked about the lanterns’ various shapes and forms, Cai said, “The lanterns were all handcrafted in Quanzhou by Chinese artisans. There are a lot of different aspects in my work that involve the Chinese community in Quanzhou, where I was brought up. My past project, Sky Ladder, was particularly significant in my hometown. Everywhere I go and work, there always is this [kind of] local aspect.”
Like Sky Ladder’s powder and fireworks, Fireflies’ lanterns are a medium that connects the artist to his childhood, a time when he was inspired by the Lantern Festival in Quanzhou. “[They are] the fireworks of my childhood that never got extinguished,” he said.
As with other public art projects of this scale, there is a lot more going on in Fireflies besides the fleet of colorful pedicabs now transporting Philadelphians up and down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Fireflies had a strong initial mission to engage and unite the people of Philadelphia and beyond, to transcend differences and bring people together in praise of cultural diversity: “[The fireflies symbolize] the spirit of multiculturalism and the spirit of coming together. They symbolize a dream. [In the early stages of the project], there was already an important conceptual part, which was to have a sensibility to multiculturalism and to public participation.” However, as Cai noticed the political and cultural climate in United States become more volatile in recent months, he thought that the project “became more and more relevant and important.”
True to the Fireflies’ spirit of inclusion, anyone can join the celebration with a free ride between 6 and 10pm, Thursdays through Sundays, until October 8. Visit apa.ticketleap.com to make a reservation.
Given the overwhelming demand for bookings and the premiere’s turnout, Cai’s engaging Fireflies will certainly create memories to be cherished and remembered for quite a long time.