Monday, October 10, 2005

Cai Guo Qiang was much louder than Dar Williams

Who's cooler than a guy whose full time job is organizing massive fireworks displays with subversive political messages in symbolic public places?

I've written about Cai-Guo Qiang before:

So I was excited when I heard that he'd be organizing a fireworks display over the river last Saturday, in a prime spot for viewing from the Kennedy Center.

Some friends and I rushed out early from an extremely mediocre Dar Williams concert at the 9:30 club*, and the Parking Gods were smiling on us, because we found a spot on 24th St. Even someone who didn't know where the Kennedy Center was would have been able to go there easily, because the streets and sidewalks were full of this strange, lemming-like crowd of people walking in that direction, chatting and laughing with that particular excited vibe of people who are about to watch loud, colourful explosions.

We made it to the Kennedy Center balcony just in time - it was completely full and I noticed the preponderance of families.** I guess those guys all read the Washington Post Sunday Source very diligently.

The display started with a series of rainbow coloured streamers over the river, and continued on with some interesting and beautiful coloured fireworks in very artistic patterns, cool jiggly streamers, gradually crescendo-ing until the whole river was topped in smoke and the air reeked of gunpowder. The fireworks display was exactly what you would get if someone who was trained in colour theory and composition, not just engineering cool pyrotechnics, was running the show.

And then it stopped, with that orgasmic finale that seems common to fireworks shows, and a few final, post-coital bangs from the late-starters.

The crowd seemed satisfied, and there was the rustling noise of people who are getting ready to leave.

I was bitterly disappointed.

I said to Jaiva, "I was expecting some kind of conceptual statement! I mean, that was cool and fun, but I always thought that Cai Guo Qiang's works would always have a larger message than pure aesthetics. Particularly with this location and at this time, it seems like there are so many more things he could do..."


All at once my griping was interrupted by a series of massive, staccato explosions. They all went off in a swarm, pure white light - no colours in these - and clustered together like a swarm of bees - or like a cloud of machine gun fire. Everyone in the audience was shrieking and Jaiva had grabbed my back in fright, almost falling over.

Then it was over. My ears were ringing. Through the ringing I could hear the murmurous sounds of thousands of parents consoling their freaked-out children. "Mummy what's happening was it a terrorist attack?"

"Gosh, that's so interesting," I began to pontificate. "I think it must be a message about - "


And again the explosions came. It was an absolutely primal experience; even the second time around, our first reaction was unmitigated terror that struck directly to the gut without the intermediation of the head. Gigantic noises tend to do that to a human being. The audience noise again was shocked and startled, but after the initial shock there was an undercurrent of paranoia. Was the show over? What was going to happen?

I started pontificating again and I'd just started on about the war on terror, the recent spate of natural disasters, the potential commentary on us fat bourgeoisie types who want to have nice aesthetic experiences and shield ourselves from the more visceral experiences of the brutalities of nature or fellow man - which has the side effect of dulling our empathy and our social consciences - when, for a third time:


After a nice juicy pause for the now thoroughly shell-shocked crowd to debate amongst themselves when this ordeal was going to end (Little girl to her mother: "Mummy, he's TRICKING US!"), the Kennedy Center balcoony fountains, which had been turned off, resumed flowing again - and this time we could all really leave.

Cai Guo-Qiang, you are a magnificent performance artist, a masterful manipulator of crowd dynamics, and you must have some kind of magical hypnotic ability to get your plans past government bureaucrats and convince them that an obviously political anti-war piece - which ended up alarming DC residents all over the city who deluged 9-11 with anxious calls about terrorist attacks - is only about hurricanes. I salute you, Sir. I salute you.


*I went with two friends who'd never heard her before and who agreed to come on my assurances that she was a fun performer. I thought loved Dar Williams on the basis of her live album, which includes snippets of witty crowd banter, but her performance last Saturday was like a nightmarish amalgam of all of the more annoying aspects of her personality: the anti-cool/cool hipsterness, the aw-shucks kumbaya moral sincerity, the obsession with teenage angst. I might still have enjoyed myself, since I go for cheesy stuff sometimes, but spent way too much energy worrying about how my friends weren't enjoying themselves and had just wasted $25 on their concert tickets.

**Including a large number of white parents with adopted Asian babies. I've become sensitive to spotting adopted families ever since I used to fly back and forth to Moscow on Delta (the airline of choice for couples who'd just picked up their adopted Russian baby). Moscow -> New York flights would seriously have like 15 couples staring incredulously and lovingly at their freaked-out toddlers, and I used to enjoy hearing their war conversations about paperwork battles with pissed-off provincial official babushkas who didn't like admitting the fact that Mother Russia couldn't handle taking care of its children and had to give them away to the West.


Blogger KOB said...

Like most people in my neighborhood (foggy bottom), the explosions were so loud, so intense and so unexpected (don't read the calendar sections faithfully) that they alarmed moi and many of my neighbors. But after reading your account and assessment, I'm reassing the entire experience. Great post.

7:18 PM  

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