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Sneak Peek: Cai Guo-Qiang’s dreamy ‘Fireflies’ art installation coming to the Parkway

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The artist showed off his ethereal lanterns and pedicabs before the September exhibit

Artist Cai Guo-Qiang rides a pedicab adorned with colorful lanterns.
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang will bring a glowing and interactive ‘Fireflies’ art installation to the Parkway.
Photos by Allie Volpe

Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies,” the public art installation celebrating the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s centennial is the realization of childhood daydreams. Artist Cai Guo-Qiang fashioned nearly 1,000 lanterns for the interactive event and the whimsical figures—colorful ice cream cones, helicopters, aliens, stars, panda bears and more—were handmade in China. But their inspiration comes from Guo-Qiang’s own dreams as a kid.

“We used to play with lanterns all the time but because we used candles to light them, we had to be careful not to catch fire,” Guo-Qiang said via an interpreter. “We had about a thousand lanterns made for this project so I can have fun with them.”

On Tuesday, Guo-Qiang began to see his childhood dream come to life as the fire-resistant lanterns, delivered safely to a warehouse in Kensington from his hometown of Quanzhou, were fastened to 27 pedicabs that will escort visitors down the Parkway. Each pedicab will feature a varying arrangement of lanterns which have been outfitted with LED bulbs, wired and suspended from metal rods.

“Fireflies,” commissioned by Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art with guest curator Lance Fung of Fung Collaboratives, bridges the gap between standard public art initiatives and interactive community activities. Beginning with an opening ceremony on Thursday, September 14, the pedicabs, adorned with the illuminated lanterns, will carry visitors from Sister Cities Park to Iroquois Park under the national flags that line the Parkway.

“It’ll slow people down,” Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator, aPA said of “Fireflies.” “When you're slowed, not only are you experiencing this incredible experience, you begin to change your own relationship to time and space and that’s something I know Cai is interested in.”

“Fireflies” marks Guo-Qiang’s second public work on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. In 2009, in a collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop, “Cai Guo-Qiang: Fallen Blossoms” brought a series of gunpowder drawings to the museum in addition to a one-time spectacle of fireworks. For “Fireflies,” Guo-Qiang wanted something bit more permanent than pyrotechnics.

“They can never catch fire, these lanterns,” he said. “I see them as fireworks that can never be put out. It’s my earliest form of fireworks.”

“Fireflies” will run Thursdays through Sundays from Thursday, September 14 through Sunday, October 8, 2017. The pedicab rides will be free.