PST Art extravaganza to start with a colorful bang
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PST Art extravaganza to start with a colorful bang
The artist Cai Guo-Qiang at his Lower East Side studio in New York, Feb. 29, 2016. (Clement Pascal/The New York Times)

by Jori Finkel

LOS ANGELES, CA.- July 4 is over, but the fireworks here are not. Artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who designed the pyrotechnics for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, is developing what he calls a large “explosion event” for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 15. The spectacle will be the start of PST Art, a $20 million, Getty-funded museum collaboration.

Originally called “Pacific Standard Time,” PST Art consists of about 70 exhibitions developed by different Southern California museums and nonprofits, each featuring a topic or artist of its choice under a given rubric. The overarching theme of this edition, the third, is “Art+Science Collide.”

“The kind of work that Cai does is the quintessential collision of art and science — it’s literally explosive,” said Getty Trust President Katherine E. Fleming, describing the Chinese-born, New York-based artist’s history with gunpowder, artificial intelligence and drones. “And thousands of people will be able to see it.”

The September show, “WE ARE,” is set to take place in and above the Coliseum. Viewers will occupy the field area rather than the seats, where about 10,000 firework shells will be perched on bamboo sticks. Overhead, 2,300 drones will offer an early example of drone-launched pyrotechnics in the United States, which only this year began granting approvals for their use.

Free tickets, available later this summer, will be required for stadium entry, but most of the pyrotechnics should also be visible from within a 2-mile radius.

“Because I worked on the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, I know that a venue like the LA Coliseum is a great place to hold a celebration,” Cai said by phone, via a translator, from his Frank Gehry-designed studio in Chester, New Jersey. “I’m thinking about a celebration of the hopes and successes of the human civilization, and I’m having AI play a role as my collaborator to help tell the story.”

Specifically, he has asked an AI program developed by his studio to weigh in on humanity’s “destiny” with learning machines — he likes sweeping themes and will be spelling out some of its answers in fireworks. Also expect a blossoming in the sky of birds of paradise flowers in vivid colors such as orange and blue.

The artist said that his pigments are “nontoxic and biodegradable” but acknowledged that “the smoke produced by black gunpowder inevitably contains traces of sulfur,” a known air pollutant. It’s one reason his event will take place before sunset. “We are doing daytime fireworks, which use pigment to produce colored smoke in the sky,” he explained, whereas nighttime fireworks use a “bigger volume of gunpowder to achieve spectacular effects.”

Some of Cai’s fireworks have taken residents by surprise with their loud explosions. The September program is going to be relatively quiet until the last act, which he described as a powerful, thundering scene “to express our complicated feelings about the world.”

The University of Southern California, which manages the Coliseum, is also staging the exhibition “Cai Guo-Qiang: A Material Odyssey” at the school’s Pacific Asia Museum as part of PST Art. The show, opening Sept. 17, will share research by Getty conservators on the artist’s use of gunpowder in public events as well as drawings and paintings. As critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, “He understands gunpowder as Velázquez understood oil paint.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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