When Cai Guo-Qiang’s Sky Ladder was ignited in June, it both drew 105 seconds of slack-jawed awe from the audience and relieved 21 years of anticipation from the team behind the artwork. Having seen three of his attempts fail before that day, Cai was especially sentimental. “Behind Sky Ladder lies a clear childhood dream of mine,” he says. “Despite all life’s twists and turns, I have always been determined to realize it. Sky Ladder touches my heart deeply.”
Cai is not alone—across the globe, despite the fickle nature, restrictive regulations, and dangers of these explosions, spark maniacs continue to develop increasingly complex fireworks, igniting deep-rooted childhood visions of shooting for the skies. Increasingly, these ephemeral displays are being seen as vehicles for creative expression as technological advancements deliver more control over colour, time and shape. From Judy Chicago’s A Butterfly for Brooklyn to the 2008 Beijing Olympic’s giant footsteps seen "walking" across a skyscape, the future of pyrotechnics looks set to marry experiential art with science.
“A show producer is really an artist who designs how to paint the sky with fireworks. Every year the envelope is pushed in regards to the creativity of the effects, such as with computerized firing systems,” says Michael Tockstein, founder of the U.S. based Pyrotechinc Innovations, a company which trains pyro ingénues. Because there is so little formal training for fireworks—they aren't taught at schools—the scope for experimentation and variation differs across cultures and countries.
British culinary architects Bompas and Parr, for example, thrashed all previous fireworks displays out of the water with their multi-sensory extravaganza in 2014. To ring in the New Year in London, the team launched fireworks simultaneously with taste clouds of strawberry, banana and other flavoured particles, which corresponded with the exploding colors. “That was probably the hardest thing we've ever had to do!” admits Sam Bompas, whose other projects include inventing an actual "Willy Wonka" flavor-changing gum. “We were interested in how we could host a firework show on steroids; a total sensory assault. By adding flavor—taste and smell—to a fireworks show we were able to do something unprecedented in the world of pyrotechnics.”
Elsewhere in the world, consumer fireworks industries and commercial display culture is booming. China is still the biggest manufacturer, while thousands of pyro fanatics flock to the famous National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico, every year. Jesse Veverka, producer of upcoming firework documentary, Passfire, spent three years tracking global fireworks industries and traditions and cites the festival’s artisanal toritos—giant bull-shaped frames lit with sparks—as among some of the most exciting displays worldwide. “The rocket festival in Thailand also, and the fireworks Malta as well,” he says. “In Europe you tend to be more focused on traditional type craftsmanship—in the United States you’re seeing shells that are electronically programmed so when you fire, each shell explodes at a certain time. You can create images like that.”
One company known for this technique is New York-based Grucci, perhaps the biggest and baddest of all. The family business has set off sparks at presidential inaugurations and Olympic Games since 1850. They also hold the Guinness World Records for "largest fireworks display ever recorded" for their Dubai 50th anniversary show.
Undeniably (even despite the pun), the future is bright. “We want to move fireworks beyond the abstract modernist stage it's in now to a more postmodern approach,” muses Bompas excitedly as he mentions a new Bompas & Parr project: a huge volcano loaded with with pyrotechnics and explosives. Additionally, Passfire should introduce audiences to artisans and manufacturers lining the skies with the finest explosions. Stay tuned for the spark.
Check out more cutting-edge fireworks in the links below: