At noon on November 30, 2012, beneath a clear late-autumn sky, Wayne Clough, the white-bearded, affable secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, appeared before a collection of cameras and microphones. As he spoke, a cold wind blew across the National Mall. The audience stood bundled in their overcoats as a representative of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held aloft a mysterious gold medal. The Smithsonian’s honored guest that day was the famed Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, who had been feted the night before at a tony gala inside the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art—an event cohosted by my wife, Susan. Some four hundred guests, among them House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Princess Michael of Kent, and the seventy-four-year- old widow of the shah of Iran, clinked glasses to celebrate the Chinese- American relationship and to catch a glimpse of Cai, who had won international acclaim for his awe-inspiring fireworks display during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cai was known to cele- brate Chinese symbols with performance art, and had once used lighted fires to extend the Great Wall by ten kilometers so it could be better seen from space. Our evening gala raised more than $1 million for the Smith- sonian and made the social pages of various newspapers and magazines.
The following day, as Cai was introduced, he was dressed in a Western-style suit, gray overcoat, and orange-red scarf. A trim, hand- some man with graying hair, he looked out upon the Mall and the sub- ject of his latest piece of performance art, a four-story-tall Christmas tree decorated with two thousand explosive devices.
As Cai twisted a handheld trigger, his audience watched the tree explode before their eyes, with thick black smoke emerging from the branches. Cai twisted the trigger again, and the tree exploded a second time, then a third. The five-minute display sent pine needles across the vast lawn in all directions and dense black smoke—symbolizing China’s invention of gunpowder—billowing up the façade of the Smithsonian’s iconic red sandstone castle. It would take two months to clean up the debris and residue left by the explosion.
I don’t know if any of the guests contemplated why they were watch- ing a Chinese artist blow up a symbol of the Christian faith in the middle of the nation’s capital less than a month before Christmas. In that moment, I’m not sure that even I appreciated the subversion of the gesture; I clapped along with the rest of the audience. Perhaps sensing the potential controversy, a museum spokesman told the Washington Post, “The work itself is not necessarily about Christmas.” Indeed, the museum labeled Cai’s performance simply, “Explosive Event,” which, if one thinks about it, is not much more descriptive than what Cai called it on his own website: “Black Christmas Tree.”
Secretary Clinton’s aide waved the gold medal for the press corps to see, as Cai smiled modestly. He had just been given the State Department’s Medal of Arts, the first of its kind, which was presented to the artist by Clinton herself, along with $250,000, courtesy of the American tax- payer. The medal was awarded, she said, for the artist’s “contributions to the advancement of understanding and diplomacy.” Cai seemed to agree with the sentiment: “All artists are like diplomats,” he said. “Sometimes art can do things that politics cannot.”