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Default Gifted Firestarter: High-Tech Pyrotechnics to Kick Off Olympics

Because of Cai Guo-Qiang, the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games is not going to be abstract, hard to decipher and boring. It's actually going to be a blast. Literally.
The New York-based, Chinese-born Cai is an installation artist who revels in using explosives (primarily gunpowder) to create violent displays of pyrotechnics, or, as he calls them, "Explosion Works." And because of his considerable talents with both art and fire, he has been commissioned to produce Friday's opening Olympic ceremony.
"His shows are on a huge scale," says Melissa Chiu, director of the Museum of the Asia Society and expert on Chinese diaspora artists.
The Chinese Olympic committee has dropped some hints about the nature of the opening ceremony. But if Cai's past works are any indication, we can expect to see an elaborate display that combines fireworks and gunpowder along with a thick helping of technology.
Cai first exploded into the art scene with a 1993 show at the Great Wall of China. Starting at the western end of the barrier, Cai layered gunpowder along the ground and then set them it in a domino-like succession. The result was a partition of thick smoke that made it appear as if the Great Wall itself extended an extra six miles into the Gobi Desert.
His follow-up works have been equally ambitious and even more tech-heavy. For the 2005 Festival of China event at the Kennedy Center, he teamed up with fireworks guru Phil Grucci to create a 500-foot-high, 150-foot-wide tornado of fire over Washington, D.C. In order to pull this feat off (and not burn any nearby structures down) Cai turned to silicon for an assist.
First sketching out his concept on pencil and paper, Cai then uploaded it to computer-aided design (CAD) software in order to model a digital rendering of the flaming twister. Then using special firework shells (invented by Grucci's company) embedded with computer chips, Cai was able to detonate each charge at precisely the time he wanted, igniting a swirling column into what he deemed "Tornado: Explosion Project for the Festival of China."
Now Cai and Grucci are partnering again for the opening ceremonies in Beijing. And it might just prove to be the best part of the entire games -- certainly more exciting than sitting through four hours of Olympic racewalking. But what the show will actually consist of is still a complete mystery. Some early videos of the rehearsals for the opener have popped up online, but it remains to be seen if this is a taste of what we'll see or just an elaborate head-fake.

"I think it will be very simple but profound. It's not going to be something of lots of color," Chiu says when asked what Cai and Grucci have in store, "but something that has gravitas to it because of the occasion."


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