As with his explosions, which draw on his love of fireworks as a child in Quanzhou, China, Cai’s lanterns reference the ones of his youth that children carried at night during the traditional Lantern Festival, which takes place annually on the fifteenth day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar.
As Cai tells it, the festival’s origin story goes like this: 1,000 years ago, the God looked down in anger at the extravagances of the people of Quanzhou celebrating the new year and vowed to burn the city in punishment. After a warning from the God’s daughter, all the households of Quanzhou lit up red lanterns and fooled the God into believing the city was already on fire.
“The lanterns have a relationship with the city’s destiny,” said Cai. The artist is interested in how his lanterns could now foster communication and good will in the City of Brotherly Love, at a time of national unrest.
It’s hard not to feel delight at the sight of this brigade of colorful lanterns. Suspended on curved rods sprouting from the tops and sides of the pedicabs are a constellation of animated objects and characters— robots, grasshoppers, tigers, planets, submarines, ladybugs, rockets, high heels, watermelons, helicopters, pandas, ice cream cones.
Cai’s favorite is the wide-eyed extraterrestrial, which he calls an “avatar” of himself. He identifies strongly with the lanterns shaped as stars, airplanes, and roosters (his animal sign in the Chinese zodiac)—reminiscent of the ones he used as a child. The lanterns are composed of fabric with a resin coating, made by artisans in Quanzhou working from Cai’s designs, and are illuminated with battery-charged lights.
The artist likes working in multiples of nine, so he chose to make 27 pedicabs. Auspiciously, he discovered after naming the project that fireflies are Pennsylvania’s state insect, and Cai also feels an affinity with Benjamin Franklin, who the parkway commemorates. “He used a kite to see if it was possible to hit lightning,” he said of Franklin. “This is like an artist’s work.”