Philadelphia – The Association for Public Art (aPA) has reason to believe that Cai Guo-Qiang’s Fireflies cast a lasting glow on Philadelphia, even though the flickering of a thousand lanterns and the sight of a fleet of rickshaw-style vehicles are but a memory.
The Association commissioned Fireflies to celebrate the centennial of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. At the World Premiere (Sept 14th), a synchronized performance, designed by the artist and presenting 27 human-powered illuminated vehicles, was crowned at the end by glittering confetti and a joyous flood of crowd participation. The event was described by The New York Times as a “mesmerizing centennial celebration” and was broadcast around the world.
By Fireflies’ last day (Oct 7th), public participation had exceeded projections: some 2,800 people had gathered for the World Premiere opening celebration and performance and some 5,500 more took free moon-lit rides along the grand boulevard. According to visitor surveys, participants came from 25 states and US Territories, and 36 countries, from Australia to Vietnam. Many of those born abroad indicated that they are currently living in the US.
Among the thousands who rode in a vehicle was Eve Rudin, a native Philadelphian who announced with spirit that she’s 101 years old, making her older than the Parkway and bringing a unique perspective to the celebration.
“We were perhaps most pleased by the number of people who told us how the experience made them prouder than ever of the Parkway and of their hometown, Philadelphia,” says Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator of aPA. She continues, “Typical of a good number of comments we received from many participants was the response from Sue Ellen Cummins, who wrote, ‘Thank you for bringing this to Philly. We didn’t know what to expect but my husband loves lights. I have never felt so intimately connected to The Parkway. I’m so proud of our beautiful city and its public art.’
“Shuttling back and forth on the Parkway aligned with flags from hundreds of different countries, the Fireflies were meant to remind people of the countless cultures and peoples that take root in the Unites States,” notes Cai Guo-Qiang. “I’m thrilled that so many participated in Fireflies, which, taking place on the city’s cultural axis, brought participants and spectators to reflect on the relationship between public art, and the city, its people and society.“
Gary Yeh, a participant who recently moved to Philadelphia, captured the artist’s intention, writing, “Last night brought back memories of night markets in Taiwan and lanterns set off into the sky…Seeing these colorfully lit pedicabs dot the streets and pedal past cars, all against the backdrop of City Hall and skyscrapers. The bridge between East and West is seldom so explicit. But it’s a beautiful dialogue…it’s like seeing my childhood memories literally weave into my new environment.”