PHILADELPHIA — As the sun set on a cloudy Philadelphia evening, a herd of cherry-red pedicabs began pulling up to Sister Cities Park. Each of the 27 pedicabs were decorated with a blooming assortment of colorful lanterns. There were 900 lanterns in total, ranging from round, traditional red spheres and five-pointed stars, to more contemporary iterations like winking emojis, dogs, donuts, UFOs, and sushi rolls. Running on weekends through October 8, these luminous pedicabs are part of a public art project by artist Cai Guo-Qiang called Fireflies.
Cai is perhaps best known for his dramatic, explosive works involving fireworks and gunpowder — his seminal work “Sky Ladder” (2015) consisted of a balloon holding a ladder of explosives that shot up 16,000 feet into the air, lasting approximately two minutes and thirty seconds after ignition. For Fireflies, which was commissioned by Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art along with Fung Collaboratives, Cai handcrafted lanterns with his studio team in his hometown of Quanzhou, China before transporting them to Philadelphia.
He hopes the whimsical shapes of the lanterns will bring about a “childlike playfulness,” while the variety of their shapes is meant to evoke the diversity of people who come to live in the United States. He highlights the context of the pedicabs’ route along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is lined with flags from countries around the world. The project is part of a series of celebrations called Parkway 100 in honor of the roadway’s 100th anniversary. Other events include an exhibition of ceramic sculptures called Configuration by artist Nicholas Kripal, and the Center for Architecture and Design’s “Cardboard City,” which will allow visitors to build an urban landscape along the parkway out of cardboard boxes.
Cai’s interactive work has a simple premise. Visitors can line up at either Sister Cities or Iroquois Park to wait in line for a ride on one of the pedicabs, which will take them on a 15-minute ride on the bustling Benjamin Franklin Parkway from one park to the other. I had reserved a ride for opening weekend and arrived for the first slot of rides to find lots of guests without reservations eager to get in on the action. Reservations on the piece’s site are completely sold out, but walk-ups are still encouraged.
I joined an older gentleman in the back of a pedicab as our driver Arielle heaved us into the formation of the other three vehicles ahead of us. The LED-powered lanterns came to light, bobbing up and down as we glided down the parkway at sunset. The pedicabs followed the bike lane, with workers from the exhibition keeping a watchful eye along checkpoints, offering a smile or thumbs-up to the drivers. Cars passed us slowly, with passengers turning their necks to take a look at the caravan of lights. A cat lantern fell off one of the pedicabs ahead of us, but was rescued and reattached unscathed, a testament to the durability of the lanterns’ construction.
The ride was unexpectedly peaceful and quiet, especially considering that we were on one of the city’s main roadways. The project seems perfectly suited to the “city of brotherly love,” as people were eager to talk to each other and make friends. Though a short experience, it was longer than most people spend interacting with any one artwork. After spending the day wandering Philly’s numerous museums by myself, the simple act of joining a stranger in a bedazzled pedicab allowed me to see the city and its everyday life in a new and whimsical light.
Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies continues at Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia on weekends through October 8.