Artist Cai Guo-Qiang says when people see Fireflies, their “heart[s] jump.”
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Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies (2017) by Cai Guo-Qiang. Commissioned by the Association for Public Art (aPA) with Fung Collaboratives. Photo by Jeff Fusco Photography, courtesy of aPA.
Paper lanterns adorn 27 pedicabs in Philadelphia.
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Cai Guo-Qiang: Fireflies (2017) by Cai Guo-Qiang. Commissioned by the Association for Public Art (aPA) with Fung Collaboratives. Photo by Jeff Fusco Photography, courtesy of aPA.
The pedicabs crisscrossed the parkway in a choreographed pattern.
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Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images.
Lanterns Illuminate Philadelphia
An artist celebrates the patriotic city’s bright history

Alexandra Franklin | for Scholastic Art

On a recent September evening, more than 900 lanterns illuminated Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The handmade paper lanterns danced and flitted down the scenic boulevard, held aloft by a fleet of 27 red pedicabs (bicycles towing small carriages for two passengers) that glided along the parkway in choreographed formations. The vibrantly adorned pedicabs are part of an installation called Fireflies, designed by acclaimed international artist Cai Guo-Qiang (tsai gwo-CHIANG). The Association for Public Art commissioned Cai to design the installation to celebrate the parkway’s centennial anniversary.

Traditional Craft Meets Modern Design

In Cai’s hometown of Quanzhou (kwan-JO), China, people have commemorated festive occasions with paper lanterns for centuries. “When I was kid in my hometown, there were a lot of lanterns I could play with, and these became extensions of my dreams,” the artist explains. Cai returned to Quanzhou to make the lanterns for Fireflies.

The LED-powered lanterns that appear in Fireflies include shapes—such as spheres and stars—common in traditional Chinese lanterns, inspired by the artist’s memories of growing up in China. But Cai also added contemporary objects, including sushi rolls, UFOs, airplanes, animals, high-heeled shoes, movie cameras, and even emojis. In a fitting tribute to Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love—the mix of traditional and contemporary designs highlights the diversity of immigrants in America.

An Illuminated Ride

The choreographed centennial celebration lasted only one night, but for several weeks after, visitors were invited to take a 15-minute ride down Benjamin Franklin Parkway in one of the quirky pedicabs still adorned with lanterns. It was a unique opportunity to enjoy the charm of the city at night with glowing paper “fireflies” lighting the way. Cai hopes the experience inspired a “childlike playfulness” in all who experienced the work.