Arts Desk

Today: A Tree Blows Up on the National Mall

In what may be one of the first planned explosions on the National Mall, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is expected to blow up a 40-foot pine tree this afternoon in honor of the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Art in Embassies program.

Using 2,000 firework-like explosives, Guo-Qiang will take the pine tree through three pyrotechnic stages: The tree will first be covered in yellow and white sparkles of light. The lights will spread throughout the tree, simulating twinkling Christmas lights. Then the tree will explode in a cloud of black smoke, leaving a “negative” smoke image that resembles a Chinese ink painting drifting off into the wind. The idea is for the tree-shaped smoke to create the image of two trees—as seen in Guo-Qiang’s sketch.

The pine tree was a seasonal decision, according to the Freer and Sackler Galleries' Head of Public Affairs, Allison Peck. While the explosion is a dual celebration for the Sackler and Art in Embassies, it also kicks off a collaboration between the organizations. The Smithsonian gallery and the State Department program—a public-private partnership that puts loaned art in embassies around the world—have agreed to work together on identifying Asian and Asian-American contemporary art for display in American embassies abroad. The Sackler will exhibit the new art before it heads overseas.

In 2005, the artist—known for his explosion art—presented a massive firework show called "Tornado" on the Potomac River for the Kennedy Center. The Sackler also displayed his work in a 2004 exhibit. Guo-Qiang is one of five artists the State Department is honoring this week for their contributions to cultural exchange: He's joined by Jeff Koons, Shahzia SikanderKiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems. In a luncheon ceremony today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presents all five artists with the first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts.

Although Guo-Qiang’s explosion will only last two minutes, it took much longer than that to plan his display. The Smithsonian had to submit several different plans before the National Park Service would grant a permit for today's event. (Guo-Qiang tells City Paper contributor Sadie Dingfelder through a translator, "I wanted to put a huge net over the Smithsonian Castle and cover it in black smoke fireworks, but the permits were too hard to get.") And what about the tree? Wednesday, the Sackler tweeted that their "lucky evergreen" will be replanted.

The event takes place 3 p.m. Friday north of the Freer and Sackler Galleries at 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Update: The Freer/Sackler recommends showing up at 2:45 p.m. It is open to the public. Stream the explosion live at the Sackler's website.

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