Why did the State Department blow up a tree on the Mall today?

In the spirit of diplomacy and Christmas, not necessarily in that order, the U.S. State Department tried to explode a large, coniferous tree today. Actually, it was contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who tried to explode it, following a ceremony in which he and four other artists received the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts. The intent, the Los Angeles Times reports, was to create a "tree image in floating black smoke that will serve as an ethereal doppelganger for the real one."  

Whether or not the effect was achieved is, I suppose, a matter for art critics to hash out. I, however, was not that impressed. The spectacle, which took place outside the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, consisted of much counting-down and several muted explosions that left the tree intact. (It was unclear if the tree was supposed to vaporize.)

Given Cai's penchant for pyrotechnics -- this is the same guy who designed the special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics -- viewers would have been justified in expecting a little more firepower. But alas, the explosions were decidedly understated, (perhaps explaining why the National Parks Service approved Cai's application to hold the event in under two weeks.)   

The diplomatic value of Cai's work is more difficult to assess. According to the Smithsonian's website, his works "aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them." But as Sean Carman points out over at the Huffington Post, it may be that "in addition to his conceptual artistic ambitions, he really just likes to blow things up."

Either way, I think this home video of an exploding Christmas tree from 2007 does Cai one better.

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