This week, the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang was in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood customizing illuminated pedicabs for a performance and art installation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this fall.
The public art project, “Fireflies,” will help mark the 100th anniversary of the grand boulevard between City Hall and the Art Museum.
In September, Guo-Qiang will bring 27 pedicabs to the Parkway, each vehicle crowned with about a dozen whimsical lanterns — such as a yellow submarine, a green space alien, a duck, a toy boat, an emoji.
The artist is best known for his fireworks displays and exploding performances, including the one he presented for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In 2009, he orchestrated an explosion, called “Fallen Blossoms,” on the steps of the Art Museum of Philadelphia, followed by a museum exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
“Fireflies” will be much quieter, with lanterns shaped like toys.
“This is the fireworks from my childhood,” said Guo-Qiang through an interpreter. “Fireworks that cannot be put out.”
This installation will not be instantaneous like his explosions, and spectators will not be required to stand outside a 50-meter safety zone. This time, they can sit inside the explosion of light.
Guo-Qiang had about 1,000 lanterns of his own design fabricated by workers in his hometown of Quanzhou and shipped to Philadelphia. He said they represent his own trajectory as an immigrant: after growing up in Quanzhou he moved to Japan, then relocated to New York where he enjoys an international reputation.
“This project has a very personal side to it. Cai remembers lantern festivals from his childhood,” said Penny Balkin-Bach, director of the Philadelphia Association of Public Art, which commissioned the piece. “It also has a universal side to it, that has to do with magic and joy and excitement and experience.”
After “Fireflies” debuts Sept. 14, the pedicabs will be available for free evening rides along the Parkway for several weeks. Balkin-Bach said Guo-Qiang was reacting, in part, to the shape of the Parkway and the international flags that line it.
“The most important aspect of the work is that people on this historic artery, which is very significant for the city and the country — people of different cultures can interact with each other,” said Guo-Qiang.
He said the illuminated pedicabs may reappear in another city, which has not yet been determined.