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Picture Piece: Grucci Fireworks

Mushroom clouds and fireworks - the ferocious beauty of explosions

Early one evening in the 1950s a massive explosion blew out 86 windows from homes and businesses in a small town on Long Island, New York. According to a local paper, one man suffered a heart attack, one woman was hurt when a chandelier fell on her, two women fainted and ten dogs went berserk.

The blast was a simulated mini-atomic bomb - similar to the one pictured - that had been detonated nearby as part of a staged civil defence alert. The man behind these mimicries of deadly force, local fireworks expert Felix Grucci, had been making such matériel on contract for the Defense Department since 1950, in response to the military's desire for an imitation bomb that could be used for training purposes. He fulfilled his first order with a device that was dropped from a plane, creating a giant fireball and the requisite mushroom cloud, which rose to 1,500 feet. Since then the Grucci family has grown into one of the premier fireworks companies in the world. It also continues to build fake munitions for
military use.

In this combination of pyrotechnic theatricalities the iconic specificity of Grucci's mushroom cloud effect stands out against the loose visual grammar of most firework shows. At their most evocative, fireworks are capable of suggesting flowers or pin-wheels. They delight primarily by their very abstraction, but also by their concussive reports, which remind us of the violent recipe that has been alchemically transformed into these allegories of loveliness. The television footage of the Baghdad bombings, filled with formless and brightly coloured illuminations that looked so familiar (and so celebratory), allowed one momentarily to forget the ferocity behind this kind of beauty. Obscured beneath those delicate, glittering tendrils and glowing boughs, gunpowder was fulfilling its first, and rather non-theatrical, potential with a terrible specificity.

Issue 80

First published in Issue 80

Jan - Feb 2004
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