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Pyrotechnic artwork commemorates 75th anniversary of first nuclear reaction via UchicagoNews

Cai Guo-Qiang’s work part of two days of events at UChicago

The pyrotechnic, multicolored display lasted less than a minute against the blue afternoon sky on Dec. 2, but created an indelible reminder of the power unlocked by the first nuclear chain reaction that occurred 75 years ago at the University of Chicago.

Internationally acclaimed artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s artwork began with flashes of red, orange and blue before a thick cloud of white formed high above the roof of the Regenstein Library, adjacent to the site of the pioneering experiment that ushered in the Atomic Age at 3:25 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1942.


Hundreds of students, faculty and community members from across Chicago gathered to hear Cai discuss the meaning of his work before the display. “Through the complexity and paradoxes found in this artwork, I hope to express both concern and hope for developments in science and human civilization,” Cai said through an interpreter, standing in front of the Henry Moore sculpture Nuclear Energy.


Cai’s display was one of the highlights of a two-day UChicago program commemorating the anniversary of the nuclear reaction’s complex legacy. It included a keynote address by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world-premiere composition entitled “Plea for Peace” by Prof. Augusta Read Thomas, panel discussions on different aspects of the nuclear legacy, and numerous arts and musical performances, concluding with an evening concert by the University Symphony Orchestra.


A day before his Dec. 2 artwork, Cai sat down with Prof. Wu Hung, UChicago scholar and curator, to discuss his artwork and career. During the talk on campus, Cai described how he was able to “represent the invisible world through visible materials” by using gunpowder and fireworks.

Growing up in Quanzhou, China, Cai said he discovered fireworks through his grandmother. While being too scared to light the fireworks himself, the discovery provided Cai an introduction to the means to share his art with the world.

Cai’s works include contributing to fireworks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and his 2012 work “Sky Ladder.” The display at UChicago builds on a series of site-specific pieces that began in 1996 as part of Cai’s “Projects For Extraterrestrials”, in which he created clouds at the Nevada Test Site, the Twin Towers and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan.

“His thinking is global, like fireworks themselves,” Wu said during the discussion. “And he used the sky as his canvas, which also belongs to everybody.”

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3 Responses

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    Simply tasteless.

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