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San Antonio law enforcement, FBI investigate explosion underneath statue next to TPR's headquarters

San Antonio and federal investigators continued on Monday to investigate the cause of an apparent explosion underneath a silver sculpture of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse Tung next to the San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

“This morning we responded to some distress calls from concerned patrons, neighbors from some smoke and a loud explosion last night," explained Liz Burt with Centro San Antonio. "We're currently working with SAPD and looking at our camera footage to understand what that was.”

No one was injured.

The sculpture sits next to Texas Public Radio's headquarters building. TPR does not own the art piece or the property it sits on.

TPR security footage showed a man dressed in a yellow shirt, ski mask, dark arm band and cap. He walked toward the sculpture, placed what appeared to be two paint cans underneath the head, and walked away. Several minutes later, the cans exploded.

The force of the blast shook the entire head-shaped sculpture.

Damage was seen near the lower half of the head, just below the "chin," and on its concrete base.

Burt added that local artist Ethel Shipton reassured her that the sculpture's structural integrity was not compromised, and there was no danger of it falling over or collapsing.

Investigators closed off the plaza and the sidewalks next to the new waterfall, near the intersection of San Pedro Creek and Commerce Street, with long strips of yellow tape.

By late Monday afternoon, a fire truck was parked on Commerce Street, and the street was closed to traffic.

Investigators in white jumpsuits, detectives in suits, police officers and personnel with "FBI" emblazoned on their dark blue shirts gingerly examined the gravel plaza. Others climbed a ladder to examine the roof of a single story building. One investigator guided a black dog around the base of the artwork. Others carried bundles of yellow flags. Late in the afternoon, investigators flew a drone over the entire scene.

“The FBI San Antonio Division is investigating reports of a possible explosion which occurred at approximately 3 a.m. today in the vicinity of the 300 block of West Commerce Street in San Antonio," a statement from the federal agency explained. "There were no injuries, and we are working with our federal, state and local partners to determine what happened. No additional information is available at this time.”

The San Antonio Fire Department declined to comment on an ongoing investigation. The San Antonio Police Department did not immediately respond to TPR's request for comment.

Two Chinese artists and brothers, the Gaos, designed the sculpture and titled it "Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head.” It portrays a small, feminized figure of Mao Tse Tung using a long pole to balance on Vladimir Lenin’s head.

Burt added that those vandalizing it may have done so without understanding the statue’s intent.

"We're deeply saddened," she said. "It's actually anticommunist ... if you read about it, if you read about the artists and their struggles. They've lost parents to dictatorship and communism. And given the world that we're in, I would hope that there would be support on public art and art that really is about conversations, specifically hard ones."

The piece was installed in March. It sparked criticism on social media and talk radio because it came during the early months of the Russian war in Ukraine.

Seven months later, the piece attracts steady attention from passersby — including people enjoying the recently opened section of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park — and people attending music shows and other events in the new space next to the intersection of Laredo and Commerce streets.

Yvette Benavides, Brian Kirkpatrick, Joey Palacios and Dan Katz contributed to this report.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii