Cai Guo-Qiang’s pyrotechnic artwork to join UChicago’s commemoration of first nuclear reaction

Dec. 2 piece part of afternoon of faculty-organized arts events and performances

Cai cloud
Illustration by
Cai Studio
Jeremy Manier
Assistant Vice President of CommunicationsUniversity Communications

From 3:20 to 3:25 p.m. on Saturday, Dec, 2, the University of Chicago will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction with the tolling of bells and a large-scale, multicolored pyrotechnic artwork by artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The ephemeral, site-specific work will rise 75 meters (246 feet) in the air above the roof of Regenstein Library adjacent to the site of the Chicago Pile-1 experiment led by Enrico Fermi, which ushered in the Nuclear Age at 3:25 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project.

The pyrotechnic piece is part of the University’s extended series of events and discussions marking the 75th anniversary, “Nuclear Reactions—1942: A Historic Breakthrough, An Uncertain Future.” The series will culminate with a two-day public program on Dec. 1–2, including expert panels and artistic works that will examine the nuclear reaction’s complex legacy from a wide range of perspectives and academic fields. In addition to the 75th anniversary of the chain reaction, this December is the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of Henry Moore’s monumental Nuclear Energy sculpture, installed at the site of the 1942 experiment.

Cai’s site-specific work, which will be carried out by the company Fireworks by Grucci, will take the form of a multicolored cloud and will harmlessly dissipate after about one minute. The University’s two-day public program also will include a discussion of Cai’s art between Cai and UChicago scholar and curator Wu Hung, on Friday, Dec. 1 at noon in Room 122 of Regenstein Library. The work is a commission of UChicago Arts and the Smart Museum of Art and is organized by Laura Steward, curator of public art at the Smart Museum of Art, with the support and involvement of UChicago faculty.

Cai Guo-Qiang said: “In the 1990s, I used black gunpowder to create mushroom clouds, humankind’s most iconic visual symbol for the 20th century. These mushroom clouds formed part of my Projects for Extraterrestrials. Today, the color mushroom cloud symbolizes the paradoxical nature of employing nuclear energy: Who is it for?”

“The work dramatizes the creative and destructive forces of nuclear fission,” said Steward. “It takes the iconic shape of nuclear energy’s most destructive form and animates it with color as a profound symbol of creativity and peace.”

Cai’s artistic experimentation with pyrotechnics and site-specific installations dates to 1986. His engagement with the form of clouds dates to 1996, with The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century, a series of works in which the artist used handheld cardboard tubes to create small clouds of smoke at meaningful locations, including the Nevada Test Site and the Twin Towers. This work will be his first multicolored cloud. The large-scale explosion event over Motomachi Riverside Park near the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan produced a similarly sized black cloud in 2008, after Cai was awarded the Hiroshima Art Prize, which “recognizes the achievements of artists who have contributed to the peace of all humanity in the field of art.” 

“Cai’s artwork reflects the yin-yang nature of the December 2, 1942 experiment’s impact. Its dualism places medicine and energy on one side, and weapons and massive destruction on the other side,” said Young-Kee Kim, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor of Physics and the College and chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago.

Following brief remarks from Bill Brown, senior advisor to the provost for arts and the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture at the University of Chicago, and the artist, the piece will begin at 3:20 p.m. on Dec. 2, when the largest bell in the carillon at Rockefeller Chapel will begin to toll for a period of four minutes—75 times total. On the final toll, at 3:25 p.m., the precise time the Atomic Age began 75 years ago, the multicolored cloud form will rise from the roof of Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th St. Depending on the strength of the wind, it may linger in the sky for about one minute before it dissipates.

“In its dramatic and poetic form, Cai’s work challenges us to confront the complex legacy of nuclear energy,” said Alison Gass, the Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum and co-chair of the Public Art Committee. “This is an ambitious project that invites a broad public outside of the museum and classroom walls to share in the University of Chicago’s culture of interdisciplinary inquiry and to think deeply about the world through the lens of artistic and scientific practice.” 

“Across media—from music and poetry to sculpture and film—the arts have worked vigilantly for seven decades to teach us what it means, as individuals and as a collective, to live in a Nuclear Age,” said Brown. “The quarter’s commemorative lectures, performances, installations and events organized by UChicago Arts register and extend that extraordinary cultural history. On December 1 and 2 the arts will provide a remarkable and appropriately complex experience on our campus.”

The public is invited to view the event near the site of Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy (1967) and the temporary installation Nuclear Thresholds (2017) designed by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects to evoke the original pile and to register the dynamics between stability and instability. A public viewing area will be blocked off along Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. The event also will be broadcast live through the University’s Facebook page.

The public talk with Cai and Hung is presented by UChicago Arts as part of the “Arts and the Nuclear Age” lecture series and will explore the artistic, technical and historical contexts of Cai’s work. There is no cost to attend the pre-program discussion or the two-day Reactions commemoration, including the presentation of Cai’s work on Dec. 2. The two-day program also includes the world premiere of “Plea for Peace,” a major new composition by Prof. Augusta Read Thomas; a new movement piece by Emily Coates, Prof. Young-Kee Kim and Sam Pluta; and new music by PhD candidate Ted Moore, Amelia Kaplan, PhD; Clifton Callendar, PhD; and graduate student Kevin Kay.

The full schedule of arts events can be found here.

About Cai Guo-Qiang

Born in Quanzhou City, China, in 1957, Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most influential and innovative artists working today. Cai’s accolades include the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 and the Hiroshima Art Prize in 2007. In 2012, he was honored as a laureate for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts in Painting by the prestigious Praemium Imperiale and in the same year was awarded the Medal of Arts from the U.S. Department of State. He is the 2015 Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Award recipient. An exhibition of his paintings recently opened at Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain—the second solo exhibition dedicated to a living artist since the museum’s founding in 1819. He currently lives and works in New York.