When a Pedicab becomes a Symbol
A Look into Cai Guo-Qiang's Parkway Performance
By Matthew Herzog
‘Perhaps the many colors and shapes of the glowing lanterns will remind viewers of the multiplicity of people who come from around the world to root in the United States.’ - Cai Guo-Qiang, Quote from an April 18th New York Times article.
Cai Guo-Qiang (TSAI gwo-CHIANG) is a Chinese-born artist recognized for his political critique and pulse racing use of gunpowder. His response to Chinese heritage and historical dynamics are often examinations from a poignant and playful distance.
This year, Cai returns to Philadelphia following his 2009 exhibition at the PMA, to announce the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s 100 year anniversary. His performance, called Fireflies, sparks an anticipated two year long celebration as the Association for Public Art will ‘present a calendar of exhibitions, events, community conversations and promotions that are themed to this important milestone.’ Was Beyoncé or Questlove too busy?
In all reality, Cai makes sense. The Parkway has hosted, since the city’s bicentennial in 1976, about 90 flags representing nations from around the world with significant populations in Philadelphia. Asian Americans populate roughly 7.4%
In line with this cross-cultural presence, Cai - along with Velo-Park and Atelier - have been building pedicabs in similar form to those used in his hometown, Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China. The cabs, aptly called a firefly - which we’ll be able to ride by the way - are decorated with lanterns and will ride the parkway at night.
To understand more about this unfolding project, Velvet Glove reached out to a longtime friend and artist, Tyler Kline and Velo-Park Founder, Ronn Ash.
Lending expertise to the Association for Public Art for Cai's performance, Ash was a clear fit. As a musician, artist, and producer he corresponded saying he was, ‘...accustomed to directing logistics and operations for tourism and entertainment events…’ and that ‘...now is the time, more than ever to support the arts.’
This is the same for Tyler Kline. Hired through the Art Handling company, Atelier, Kline is not only constructing these cabs, he’s training to be one of those that operate them.
‘The fabrication required 9 fabricators a day, working 8 - 10 hour shifts. We became [intimately] involved in the process.’ Kline wrote in an email. ‘Everything was made with hand tools in a makeshift studio, and it came together beautifully, dreamlike, joyful yet with a hint of [melancholy].’
I asked Ash and Kline to discuss their personal experience so far and working with Cai himself - since neither Kline nor Ash is Chinese. However, before I could inquire about their collaborations, I needed to understand from where Cai's work was coming. Why pedicabs?
Growing up during China’s cultural revolution in the mid sixties, Cai heard gunshots while he slept. They were not symbolic of a hunting trip or urban warfare, they were symbols of a national movement, an ideological and violent purge.
As Cai has mentioned in earlier interviews, reclaiming history, and specifically gunpowder, was an effort to heal from these events. He wanted to bring the chemical explosive closer to the Chinese word’s translation, ‘Fire Healing’. It’s a translation as derivative of its use in cauterizing wounds as it is reflective of the pre-communist culture that created it. I doubt someone would refute China’s need for healing after the violent revolution Cai experienced, especially when America is in its own pre-Zedong-like preservationist, I mean nazi sympathizing, I mean Trump monarchical confusion.
Originally a painter, Cai's sense of political alarm boiled during the pro democracy protests of Tienanmen Square when he was living in Japan. He altered his work to depict a re-imagined culture, something far from its present destructiveness and closer to a reality he wanted.
In one of his earlier pieces, Cai's 1999 work at the Venice Biennale, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard - earning him the Golden Lion Award - Cai depicted Chinese propaganda sculptures in unfired clay. The representations of marginalized peasants became brittle and disintegrated over the course of the exhibit, creating one of the first high-profile political critiques of Chinese history by a Chinese artist and a representation of Cai's hopeful wish to leave that history behind.
During an interview for Brilliant Ideas, Cai talked about history’s violent and terrifying reputation and how it altered his view of contemporary society. An applicable tool considering this past month Charlottesville, Barcelona, Cambrils and Turku fits well within past atrocities.
In a meeting place between Kellyanne Conway’nian philosophy and rose colored glasses, Cai provides an alternative reality. One that charms us with awe and brings back childlike harmlessness. It’s the belief that where we were in the past has strong relevance to our present situation. More acutely, that our present circumstance is often created by beliefs creeping in from the past, and we should be aware.
After understanding more of Cai, it appears the Parkway will stand as a platform for cultural memory. The wonder and lights will not only imbue sensorial representations of Philadelphia’s Chinese demographic, it’ll enhance the Parkway’s moral aim to represent America’s present fight for inclusiveness.
Pedicabs may have a more family-friendly presence, but underneath them is a manifestation of ideological hope. Maybe that’s what family-friendly really is. In this instance it appears more of an exchange of culture. Cross-culture may be the wrong term. Cultural unity or United in Diversity may be closer to Cai’s intent. Look at where we are. Look at what we can be. Look at who we are and the beauty that can mean.
Not an easy mission. Though as Ash wrote when referencing the success of the performance, ‘Fireflies is two years in the making and it has been a pleasure and privilege to work with everyone and see the artist’s vision come to light.’
Kline paralleled Ash’s response saying, ‘I liked the experience, it was raw and hands on, the feel was authentic, sweet but not saccharine. Sublime sums up the feeling once the pedicabs were constructed and wired up.’
To learn more about the year of Public Art check out the Association for Public Art’s website here: