How To Watch a Dazzling Rainbow Mushroom Cloud Display Mark 75 Years of the Atomic Age

The artist Cai Guo-Qiang will has designed a pyrotechnic display, a mulit-colored mushroom cloud that will rise nearly 250 feet above the roof of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The site-specific artwork marks exactly 75 years since Enrico Fermi engineered the first controlled, self-sustained nuclear fission reaction on the same campus. Cai Guo-Qiang

On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the world changed forever. Enrico Fermi helped engineer the first controlled, self-sustained nuclear fission reaction that day at the University of Chicago's Stagg Field, marking the start of the Atomic Age. On Saturday, exactly 75 years later, the artist Cai Guo-Qiang will create a spectacular rainbow mushroom cloud above the school's Regenstein Library, not far from where Fermi made history.

"Tomorrow we are launching this artwork here at this unique time and space," the Chinese artist told Newsweek through a translator on Friday. But "to commemorate this issue is not light hearted, in fact it's quite heavy."

Through his art, Cai wants to represent the complexity and contradictions of nuclear energy and reflect "the duality of creation and destruction as well as the beauty and disaster that our civilization has created," and where "there is anxiety but also hope."

Throughout the fall, the university marked the anniversary with "Nuclear Reactions—1942: A Historic Breakthrough, An Uncertain Future," a series of events that included a subset of lectures on "Arts and the Nuclear Age." Cai's colorful demonstration is part of the final public programs on Friday and Saturday.

On Saturday, Cai is slated to speak along with Bill Brown, a professor of American culture and senior advisor to the provost for arts. The largest bell at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus will toll 75 times, starting at 3:20 p.m. local time. Upon the final bell, the pyrotechnic mushroom cloud—designed by Cai and implemented by Fireworks by Grucci—will ignite.

If all goes according to plan, the stem will rise in the sky until it reaches its highest point, and then the cap of the mushroom will explode at once. The cloud will rise about 246 feet above the launch point on the roof of the library. Depending on the weather, Cai said, observers could see the entire composition moving in the direction of the wind for about a minute. But if it's very windy, the cloud might dissipate within a matter of seconds.

On-campus viewers can watch the display near Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy sculpture, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. But for anyone unable to be there in person, the event will be streamed live on UChicago's Facebook page.

Black Ceremony 2011, Realized outside Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, December 5, 2011, 3:00 pm. The demonstration was realized using 8,300 smoke shells fired with computer chips and lasted approximately three minutes. CAI GUO-QIANG

Saturday's demonstration will be Cai's first multi-colored cloud, but it's hardly the first time his work has been inspired by nuclear energy. In the 1990s, he created clouds on a much smaller scale from the palms of his hands at locations such as the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear tests took place between 1951 and 1992. He also worked on exhibitions in Hiroshima, where "one cannot escape the topic of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb."

The rainbow mushroom cloud that will bloom over the University of Chicago campus will commemorate Fermi's historic discovery 75 years ago. But events occurring right now—from North Korea's threats of nuclear attack to the future of the Iran nuclear deal—add an undeniable element of immediacy to the demonstration.

"At this sensitive time, this work further represents the dilemma and the responsibilities that we as humans have as we create our civilization," Cai said. And while "it is humans who have invented massive destruction," he adds that it's important to remember that "there are still some people who use the same energy to create beauty, and that knowledge in itself brings hope."