Fireflies - Exhibition Description

nighttime fireflies_yellow and orange

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Curatorial Statement for Fireflies


The evolution of the Fireflies project by Cai Guo-Qiang has been a thrilling curatorial experience for me.  It seems that my practice has been blessed, in the sense that each new project seems to appear out of the blue, and this one is no exception. It began when the Association for Public Art (aPA) in Philadelphia invited me to visit Philadelphia with the sole purpose to develop a new temporary public artwork for the centennial of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. There were no preconceived ideas, and despite the joy of working with a blank canvas, there was also an incredible amount of pressure.  The possibilities were endless, and the scale of the project felt huge.

I was excited by the way that this boulevard connects Philadelphia’s rich history with its vibrant contemporary life.  At times, the site brings these two worlds into collision in a way that can seem disjunctive, but for a curator or an artist this tension may spur inspiration.  In some ways, this context seemed perfect; it allowed me to commission artists to envision and realize temporary projects that could enhance or fill in the gaps between what was already there, making connections between different parts of the site, not only geographically, but also aesthetically and conceptually. The range of important institutions that flank the parkway also enriched the opportunities available through possible collaborations. The potential resources on the parkway—intellectual, natural, and aesthetic—are enormous.

Once all of these possibilities became apparent to me, the pressure further mounted.  How could I come up with an exhibition or series of projects that could make a meaningful impact on Philadelphia’s residents and visitors?  The parkway itself is a massive territory, where vehicles and pedestrians, residents and tourists, all collide in the daytime. Studies show a huge decline, however, in the amount of activity along the parkway in the evening. I knew that I wanted to create a project that would somehow physically link the entire parkway, from the museum to city hall, throughout both the day and the night. I also wanted to create a project that would somehow become an event or destination, linking institution-to-institution and resulting in a feeling of citywide community and oneness.  At the same time, it was difficult to see what the end result would look like, especially because the available funds would be limited.

Artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to mind as a possible inspiration, particularly how beautifully they manage to speak to both the art world and the general public through creating a collective experience.  People are not concerned about what label to give their work; the question of whether their projects are “high art” is not the main topic of conversation.  Rather, everyone—from those who encounter their work by chance to the jaded art journalists—speaks about the experience. Their simple, elegant installations seamlessly combine the sophisticated tastes of the art world with an immediate appeal to the general public, and the same goal drives me in each of my exhibitions.  How can a strong curatorial vision, partnered with a visionary artist, further the discourse of public art in a constructive manner? Can public art really be great art at the same time?

I recalled first stumbling across Luci d’Artista in Torino when I was working on The Snow Show: Torino for the XXth Winter Olympic Games in 2006.  The amazing light installations scattered throughout the small Italian town were beautiful and conceived by world-famous artists as well as by some emerging Italian artists.  Could such a project be the answer I was searching for?  A series of works along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway could activate the space aesthetically and transform people’s everyday understanding of the busy boulevard. It could also bring people who were not typically art enthusiasts to the museum-lined street and, just as importantly, entice visitors who were interested in a specific museum to venture into another institution in the vicinity.  The idea was appealing; nonetheless, I initially felt some hesitation over the idea of a “light project.” Such exhibitions are typically intended to accompany a festival or other short-lived event, and the underlying intent is usually to create a space for social interaction rather than to engage in a rigorous investigation in public art.  The other aspect that I continued to question was how such an artwork could succeed in the daytime, because such light-based works must rely on the darkness of evening for their full effect.

I began to envision a series of projects that would be fully interactive for the visitors, created by artists whose focus was not typically on public art, and that would also incorporate an arts education component.  I wanted to update the typical light exhibition by inviting artists to develop proposals that incorporated elements of light but were not confined by them, so that the artworks would take on a completely different emphasis from day to night.  It is likely that different audiences will see the work during the day and during the night, but I hoped that the artists would consciously develop projects that would create a desire in viewers to return to experience the work under varying conditions.

Once the foundation for my curatorial premise was determined, I quickly began discussions with artists that I have worked with in the past and also with artists that I have always wanted to work with. During our first conversation about the parkway, Cai Guo-Qiang instantly saw that collaborating with me on this project would present great possibilities and opportunities.  The creative way in which he had exploited light as a fundamental material in his work, whether in his early use of lanterns or his later pyrotechnic displays and gunpowder explosions, resonated with me.  But how would he approach this unique challenge?  He was already familiar with the site and understood the importance of the city and its history due to his previous project, Fallen Blossoms, which was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop.

After numerous conversations, spanning a year, Cai came back with his brilliant proposal, Fireflies.  As I had hoped, the work single-handedly accomplishes many of the aspects that I wanted to address. Cai will create 27 unique “fireflies”—mobile kinetic sculptures adorned with handmade lanterns—that will move up and down the parkway, in a pattern resembling a dancing Chinese dragon, for a month-long exhibition period. These fireflies will function as works of public art, but will also serve as a free form of public transportation along the parkway.  Inspired by Chinese rickshaws, modern-day pedicabs will be the skeletons that Cai Guo-Qiang will transform into his artwork.  Hundreds of the handmade lanterns will adorn the structures and, as the artist says, “the lanterns will bobble gently, transforming the vehicles into fireflies.”

Such lanterns are a recurrent motif in Cai ‘s work, inspired by his own childhood experiences creating lanterns; the artist chooses such lanterns to symbolize the luminescence of the lightning bugs. Like actual fireflies, Cai’s installation will be active from the late afternoon until early evening, allowing for all to witness the duality of the work as it changes from a series of colorful sculptures during the daytime into a beautifully illuminated installation in the evening.

During traditional festivals, both in the artist’s hometown of Quanzhou and all over China, public spaces and private homes are decorated with paper lanterns, echoing the gathering of guests, relatives, and friends on festive occasions. Traditionally, in preparation for such festivals, communities and families come together to make the lanterns by hand. Similarly, the unique, handmade lanterns that embellish the pedicabs will function as more than a simple source of light; they will evoke these traditions and represent the product of both a celebrated artisanal craft and the community that shared in the experience of making them.

The transformed pedicabs will undergo yet another metamorphosis as they move, in an almost choreographed pattern, transporting viewers along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  Those who view this unexpected and fleeting event should experience the beauty that only Cai offers by embracing chance and nature. Each minute of the 30-day exhibition will differ.  We anticipate that those who stumble across the Fireflies exhibition will experience a sense of discovery followed by a feeling of delight.  Both of these reactions are important to gaining and retaining the interest of all those who see public art for the first time. As the viewers move freely throughout the site, they will be able to encounter Cai’s work in a multitude of ways.  People will be able to view the works up close or at a distance from any position along the parkway.  Birds’-eye vistas are built into the parkway, ranging from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Love Park.  Pedestrians, bikes, and cars will be moving alongside the fireflies, and those relaxing at Eakins Oval, Logan’ Circle, or one of the many institutions along the parkway will be front and center as the fireflies dance past them.

For those who experience the work directly, the artist wants to transport the visitor not only from place to place but also to a different state of mind. One expects a certain feeling of anticipation and excitement when visiting the parkway in the afternoon or evening for the specific purpose of seeing the artwork. Through the low-tech approach of a man-powered vehicle, however, Cai wants to reduce the pace of the viewer, such that a deeper appreciation of time and space is experienced. The passenger will unplug from technology and leave behind the stress of daily life so that an immersive experience will take place.  The glow cast from the handmade lanterns, the wind on the face, and the ambient sounds should make a lasting impression on all who visit.

For those who cannot experience the work in person, photographs, video clips, and comments from those who have will be available through our website.  Trained ambassadors will maintain each “Firefly” hub.  iPads with artistic and didactic content developed by the artist will be available for visitors to see before and after their trip.  An interactive questionnaire will also be available, so that comments from visitors can be added to the website.

This extremely bold shift from Cai’s other recent projects relates to some of the artist’s seminal work, such as Service for the Biennial! (2001), commissioned by Harold Szeemann; Dream (2002); and Illusion of Childhood (2008).  It will occupy an important place in Cai’s body of work, but more importantly, it will be a landmark event in the history of public art. Through combining an introspective, rigorous, and deeply personal approach with a strong sense of how great art can connect a community, I believe Fireflies will long resonate in the memory and history of Philadelphia.


Lance M. Fung, curator, Fung Collaboratives

October 6, 2014