Suikang Zhao fires up the art in Tacony, PA

Prof. Suikang Zhao’s latest art installation, “Taokonick,” captures the grittiness and romance of firefighting and manufacturing. It’s a series of bronze and stainless steel pieces at the new Engine 38 firehouse in Tacony, PA. Prof. Zhao’s work was chosen for its permanence, historical detail, and reverence to the community.  Funded by Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program, the installation is also, frankly, fun.

A laser cutout of an old Philadelphia fire truck. “They put water in it and a team pumps it and water comes out. In the old days everyone came out to help,” says Zhao. “Otherwise next time no one helps you.”

Zhao’s intent was to help knit the newly built firehouse and adjacent community center together and to connect the entire site more closely to the neighborhood.

“I can’t put up an isolated sculpture and walk away. I have to research the history, talk to firefighters and people in the neighborhood,” said Zhao. His site-specific installation includes elements of historical relevance like Disston saws (originally made nearby), images of old fire engines and an apparatus used to receive fire alarms from call-in boxes before telephones were common.  

“It really challenges the function and communication of art. Constructing permanent public art is a stricter process. Every nut and bolt has to be chosen with care, because it’s going to be up for 50 to 100 years, exposed to the weather.”

The Disston saw was manufactured by Philadelphia industrialist and saw maker Henry Disston. The small blade with disproportionately large teeth on the upper left of the right-hand panel is from a fireman’s saw that was used for demolition. Zhao’s re-creation is made of stainless steel.

“This way of art making – researching and respecting the community and the history that it’s a part of — is a way of integrating art into a sphere that is not necessarily art-savvy outside the universe of galleries and museums,” says Fine Arts Chair Stephanie DeManuelle. “It’s an excellent example for students and artists who are ready to go out into the world.”

“I bring art inside people’s lives,” said Zhao who teaches in the fine arts department. “It has to do with the context of this particular  site — the history of the neighborhood and Philadelphia, and the Disston saw.”

The Disston saw in this photo was from a collectible that Zhao borrowed and made a cast of. “Local kids didn’t know how to use it, or what it was used for,” Zhao said.

“I don’t believe art should superimpose any reality. It’s a part of the texture of reality. That’s why my work has a lot of overlapping, interweaving, texture in form and context.  To me it’s no longer about artifacts. The issue is, artifacts only work within a context in the surrounding environment.”

A fire alarm receiver. “When you pulled the handle on an alarm box — they were on many telephone poles and inside buildings — it sent an electrical signal to this machine, which typed out the alarm-box number indicating where the fire was.”


Hydrant and water gun from 50 years ago arranged as permanent art, sturdy enough for children to play on.

Most people think of public art as beautification, says Zhao. “They even have this term ‘the beautification of the site.’ But I’m ‘challenging’ the site, bringing my thinking process into this reality. Time is not linear but rather treads through different forms of social structures of past, present and future—overlapping simultaneously.”


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