Preview: Cai Guo-Qiang's Sky Ladder

Josh Feola profiles the world-renowned firework artist's bio-doc

Cai Guo-Qiang is arguably modern China’s first international art star. His status as a key figure on the New York art scene – where he has worked and lived since the mid- ’90s – was cemented in 2008, when the Guggenheim hosted a major retrospective of his work. His legacy at home was also definitively established that year, when he served as Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He’s enjoyed plaudits from both Western contemporary art institutions and the Chinese Government, and breathes rare air in that sense, but Cai’s magnum opus was only realised last year – and was created for an audience of one.

Sky Ladder is the name of Cai’s masterwork, a half-kilometre-long, vertical lattice of fire and smoke, 21 years in the making. It’s also the title of a documentary about Cai’s life and oeuvre, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January and will receive a wider release on Netflix at the end of the month.

Cai is best known for his ‘explosion events’: massive fireworks displays that elevate traditional gunpowder culture to the artist’s exacting aesthetic standards. Sky Ladder opens in the ‘fireworks capital of China’, Liuyang, a city with a 1,400-year history of the craft. In a voiceover, Cai gives a thumbnail history of the firework, explaining that the underlying technology was first arrived at by alchemists trying to create an elixir for immortality. Later, firework technology was gradually drafted into the service of vibrant displays for ritual and social observance. This opening anecdote leads abruptly into an overwhelming, almost comically loud montage of Cai’s past works, covering the artist’s incendiary career in the space of about one minute before moving on to the meat of his biography.

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Born in the southern port city of Quanzhou in 1957, Cai was tuned to a poetic and mystical pitch from an early age. His father, Cai Ruiqin, was an esteemed calligrapher. Cai Guo-Qiang’s formative years in Quanzhou are kept to a minimum in the documentary, for either political or personal reasons.

We do get a few candid reflections from Cai from this time period. At one point he tells a story about Red Guards shooting his dog. He smiles wanly when he says that everyone in his family, himself included, ate the pet afterwards, given the scarcity of meat at the time. Cai tells a more heart-wrenching Cultural Revolution story a few scenes later. His father, he explains on-camera to his adult daughter, was the manager of a Government-owned bookstore in Quanzhou. ‘He spent all his salary on books and never brought any money home,’ he says, recalling his father saying that, ‘although I spend money on books and not the family, one day you will…’ Here, in one of the film’s most powerful moments, Cai’s voice breaks, as tears well in his eyes. He says that his grandmother – Chen Ai Gan, a strong matriarch – was always angry with his father for squandering his meagre pay on books. ‘He said books were his fortune, and that they would be my fortune, too,’ Cai says. ‘We had to burn most of them during the Cultural Revolution. We burnt the books for three days, mostly at night, and I helped him do it.’

Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy from 1981 to 1985, receiving influence at the time from contemporary Japanese art. He lived in Japan from 1986 to 1995, where he began to experiment with using gunpowder in his work. The artist moved to New York in 1995 after receiving a grant from the Asian Cultural Council, and has lived there ever since.

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Sky Ladder, Cai’s dream work, eluded him for decades. Early in the documentary he says that ‘the purpose of the ladder wouldn’t be for me to go to space, it would be to encourage a dialogue’, and the film indeed plays like a long, manically focused conversation about a battle against almost supernatural odds. Cai first attempted Sky Ladder in Bath, England in 1994, but his dreams were dashed by bad weather. He didn’t attempt the work again until 2001, in Shanghai; this attempt was cancelled due to increased threat levels after the September 11th attack on the United States. Cai prepared a third attempt in Los Angeles 11 years later, only to have his permit revoked due to wildfire risk.

After this third foiled attempt, Cai was inundated with personal and professional obligations. In 2014, he coordinated a fireworks display for the Beijing meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), causing some to question his relationship with the Chinese Government. Despite setbacks and creative clashes, Cai completed his work for the event according to its overseers’ specifications. The documentary is hesitant to wade too deep into politically heated waters. Cai does, however, speak candidly about his role both in the Apec meeting and the 2008 Olympics, arguing that his participation in such globally important events is no different from that of UK art star Damien Hirst, who created a specially commissioned work for the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. He talks about the tension between challenging authority and entertaining the masses in his work, saying that he wanted to make people feel ‘open’ with his Olympics display. ‘As artists, can’t we help change the system by working within it?’ he asks.

The Sky Ladder plot resumes in 2015, with studies conducted in Long Island. His devotion to the piece is almost maniacal. Cai’s wife compares his obsession with the literal act of burning money.

In the final act of the film, after visiting his ailing grandmother and father in a hospice, Cai decamps to a fishing village on Huiyu Island, near Quanzhou – his grandmother’s ancestral home. She was too ill to physically witness her grandson’s crowning achievement, but he dials her in over iPad when the Sky Ladder finally stretches toward the heavens, to the joy of the small, local crowd assembled on the beach below.

Sky Ladder ends in tears, a potent mix of triumph and sorrow. Before the credits roll, a sombre screen informs the viewer that Cai’s grandmother, his sole intended audience for this astounding feat, passed away a month after its completion, at age 100. Near the beginning, Cai speaks of an early epiphany, saying that as a young man he realised ‘art could be my space-time tunnel connecting me to the universe’. His ladder to the sky, transcending the personal and political, seems to accomplish his goal, and this documentary will surely transmit his vision to audiences far and wide in the time to come.

  • 4 out of 5 stars