Cai Guo Qiangs exploding cars are supposed to fly in a continuous arc, but at SAM, the arc is all chopped up by the architecture.
Cai Guo Qiang's "exploding" cars are supposed to fly in a continuous arc, but at SAM, the arc is all chopped up by the architecture. PHOTO BY EDUARDO CALDERON

My fellow art-loving Seattleites, our long civic nightmare is over.

The cars flying across the gigantic, two-story lobby at Seattle Art Museum are coming down in January, after nine endless years.

The artwork to which I'm referring is Cai Guo Qiang's Inopportune: Stage One, which was originally created in 2005 for a Massachusetts museum that has a 300-foot-long gallery. (Click to see what they looked like.)

At that museum, you could walk into that single gallery and see the entire arc of the white cars as they tumbled through space with their "exploding" colored lights flashing. There was nothing else in the gallery. The cinematic, frame-by-frame flight—beginning and ending with parked cars on the ground—potentially symbolized a car bomb, or a crash.

In 2007, the artwork came to Seattle Art Museum and became part of its permanent collection. It was a gift from retired banking executive Robert M. Arnold in honor of SAM's 75th anniversary in 2008 and the expansion of the museum, which opened with the cars front and center.

The flashing lights, visible from the street, became synonymous with SAM.

But confusion became synonymous with the flashing lights.

At SAM, the cars flying through the air were interrupted by the architecture, dramatically. You couldn't see the entire arc because the cars flew through a balcony and down onto another floor. Over the years, I gave museum tours for various groups, and every single time, the people would say to me, "What is that?"

Inopportune: Stage One has been one of the worst-installed art juggernauts that I've ever seen.

It was rendered meaningless. But it was also the loudest thing about entering SAM. I found it continually depressing.

“We’ve loved having this thought-provoking installation at the museum—and in such a special spot, greeting our visitors and lighting up our events,” says Kimerly Rorschach, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. “I hope that visitors come to SAM during the holiday season to see Intimate Impressionism and say goodbye to the cars.”