Reconsidering Fourth of July Fireworks and Independence Day in Light of Cai Guo-Qiang's 'Sky Ladder'

Cai Guo-Qiang's Mystery Circle2.jpg

The United States of America adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in which the nascent thirteen colonies professed its freedom from the control of the British Empire. The day is known as either Independence Day or the Fourth of July. Its most iconic celebrations are with a parade during the day and fireworks in the evening. In Riverside, California, a grand display of pyrotechnics is shot from the top of Mount Rubidoux each year.

The Chinese invented gunpowder in 7th century B.C., which led to all sorts of explosive devices, such as fireworks, which eventually led up to the technology that allowed humans to escape the earth's gravity into outer space atop skyscraper-sized bottle rockets. The U.S. owes not only debt to this ancient Chinese technology but, today, is in major financial debt to China. We're not as independent as we'd like to think, despite celebrating Independence Day.

On this day of sending projectiles above the city that burst into patterns called Chrysanthemum, Ring, Spider, and Salute, among others, the irony of economic dependence to a country whose technology allowed the U.S to excel in the aerospace industry seem embodied to me in the work of a Chinese-born, New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang, whose work happens to be on display in Los Angeles. He is known for creating public spectacles with fireworks and using them to create more traditional drawings for hanging, but with a very non-traditional technique based on pyrotechnics. His exhibition, "Sky Ladder," at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is on view through July 30, 2012, and is the first West Coast solo museum exhibition work by Cai.

Fireworks on display in Riverside. | Photo: Daniel Orth/Flickr/Creative Commons

For Cai, his work is not an attempt to compete with Fourth of July of celebrations or Disney's nightly firework displays, about an hour's drive from downtown L.A. to Anaheim in Orange County. His spectacles are aimed less at being entertaining with their abstract beauty of lights in the sky, and more as an exploration into using them to communicate with other intelligent beings in outer space, letting them know that "We're here!"

By directing our attention skyward with the hope of life beyond earth, then perhaps we'll forget seeming differences between humans that lead to war, colonization, and economic indebtedness. In other words, hopefully there will be no more need for wars of independence.

Cai Guo-Qiang's Mystery Circle Exposion project for MOCA | Photo: Souza/Flickr/Creative Commons

Cai embodies these sentiments in his titles, such as "Mystery Circle: Explosion Project for MOCA, Los Angeles." It is the latest work in Cai's "Projects for Extraterrestrials" series that began in 1989 and has since included more than thirty works. Located on the northern exterior wall of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the piece was ignited on April 7, 2012, to create a spectacular explosion, including pyrotechnic flying saucers, burning crop circles, and an alien god.

One way in which Cai attempts some galactic transnationalism is to enlist members of the community where each project takes place to assist in the set up, managing the event, and so on. Just as he changes physically the gunpowder into ephemeral images on the side of a building or on paper, he also attempts to change cultural habits through a community effort with mutual purpose that is, simply put, about "communication." Perhaps in the back of Cai's mind, he hopes that there may be an "alien" in the crowd too who gets his message?

However, the results of said communication could result in disaster, as represented in the 1996 movie, "Independence Day." It is an apocalyptic, science fiction film in which aliens invade Earth on July 2nd. Humans attack back with their biggest affront being on the Fourth of July. Director and screenwriter of the film, Roland Emmerich, demonstrates that a common threat can unite people, unlike Cai who focuses on communication rather than annihilation as the hoped for interaction.

Still image from 1996 film Independence Day | Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

In 1950s sci-fi films, alien invasions could also be viewed as stand-ins for the Communist threat in the American cultural imagination, e.g. Red Mars/Red Communism. Will the Chinese become the new malevolent Martians? Cai's community-based actions, spectacles, and unique use of homegrown gunpowder technology would suggest otherwise. But, will American mainstream cinema follow suit, or will it create more stories to instill fear? After all, the Chinese have been sending their citizens to space and are even building their own space lab. Will they be the first to colonize the Moon or Mars, creating a Peoples Republic of Luna? But these types of nationalistic anxieties are exactly what Cai wants to avoid in his own work by aiming towards more universal goals of communication by any means possible, even via explosives.

On this Fourth of July, while I sit on another tall hillside, able to see not only the fireworks from Mount Rubidoux but also from many of the surrounding Inland Empire cities--giving the appearance of a shock-and-awe, under-the-of-night bombardment of the region--I ask myself, "What is independence?"

In a twisted kind of logic in which the U.S. pays homage to its new masters, can the use of fireworks for a Fourth of July in 2012 be viewed as a reluctant celebration of economic dependence on China, eschewing 236 years of independence from the British Empire? I exaggerate, of course. Because, the truth, is that we humans are dependent deep down, but on one another, not on nation states or a global economy--at least, that's how it should be. I believe that Cai is after the same ideal. He goes further by inspiring ties between humans and other intelligent creatures. In this view, Independence Day is a misnomer for we are (in) Dependence in reality.

Cai Guo-Qiang's Mystery Circle Exposion project for MOCA | Photo: Souza/Flickr/Creative Commons

Slaves, the colonized, and those in servitude have known that independence lies in one's mind. So, even if your body is broken, your mind is alive, able to protect one's true self. It is the one place that cannot yet be actively reached by others--although influences from the outside are possible of course--but no permanent sensors, probes, and chips as of yet. So, for me, my fireworks are not explosions in the sky, but the electrical ones by neurons in my brain.

Information on the Fourth of July firework display at Mount Rubidoux, Riverside, California and in the surrounding cities, can be found here.

Cai Guo-Qiang's exhibition,"Sky Ladder," at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is on view through July 30, 2012.

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Top Image: Cai Guo-Qiang's "Mystery Circle" exposion project for MOCA | Photo: Souza/Flickr/Creative Commons

About the Author

Tyler Stallings is the artistic director at Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.
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