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.”