A Life in Smoke and Thread


The looms are packed up and five weavers have returned home to China after a 3½-month stint at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia as part of “Fallen Blossoms,” Cai Guo-Qiang’s two-venue exhibition at FWM and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Invited in 2005 by the late PMA director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, and Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud, founder and director of FWM, to do a joint project at their institutions, Cai was waylaid by his fireworks project for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; d’Harnoncourt died unexpectedly that year. Regretful at never having worked with the highly regarded director, Cai was also struck by the sense of loss he perceived in Philadelphia, and more particularly by that of Stroud, who had been friends with d’Harnoncourt for more than 40 years. In response, he conceived a project on the transitory nature of life in general, and the course of the two women’s friendship in particular. On Dec. 11, 2009, at sunset, he ignited a huge flower-shaped fireworks display mounted on the PMA’s facade. The bloom spectacularly exploded, then smoked and smoldered in glowing embers shaped like petals before turning to ash and crumbling to the ground.

Two major new pieces were installed at FWM. Cai had asked Stroud to record memories of her friend, which became the basis of both works. Stroud’s spoken narrative was softly broadcast from speakers on two floors. Building a long steel trough, and nesting within it a 120-foot-long scroll of white silk with stencils and gunpowder, Cai ignited the piece in front of a select audience the same evening as the fireworks. The drawings in Time Scroll burned from right to left, the direction of the narrative, leaving behind singed scenes. During the exhibition, water flowed through the trough, with the expectation that the images would be washed away by the end, a metaphor for the erasures of time.

Cai’s second piece, Time Flies Like a Weaving Shuttle, was more uncharacteristic. He arranged for five weavers to come to Philadelphia from the Xiangxi region of Hunan. They set up their looms in a row and worked at a steady pace to create some 20 tapestries. The artisans themselves designed the textiles, drawing on Stroud’s stories, photos of Philadelphia landmarks and their own imaginations, which made for some fanciful juxtapositions and inventions.

Oddly, Cai installed the project so that visitors entering at one end could see only the backs of the tapestries draped over a series of racks extending from the walls. “The backs of the tapestries have a stronger artistic sense,” he told A.i.A. in an e-mail, “and leave more room for imagination,” adding, “visitors see the hundreds and thousands of threads that make up a tapestry, which is more fascinating.”

In order to see the fronts, one had to walk past the weavers at work and double back through a narrow space between the looms and the racks, peering askance at the series of colorful scenes filled with descriptive detail: a trip made by d’Harnoncourt and Stroud to Egypt, complete with pyramids and the Great Sphinx; d’Harnoncourt looking over a city skyline with a glass of red wine at hand, or talking to reporters before a bank of microphones.

It is unclear what will happen to the finished tapestries. Stroud has expressed her hope that some of the panels will wind up at her institution, which owns examples and archives of many of the projects completed in residency. (Contractually, the Time Flies tapestries belong to Cai.) One can only hope that the tapestries will be shown again somewhere in their totality so that this moving tribute to a life and a friendship can be seen by a wider audience.

Photos: (left) Tapestry depicting the travels of Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kippy Stroud. (right) Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Time Flies Like a Weaving Shuttle at the Fabric Workshop, showing weavers and, at right, the finished tapestries.