Directed by Kevin Macdonald, Sky Ladder is a Netflix feature length documentary that tells the extraordinary story of Cai Guo-Qiang’s quest to “connect the Earth to the universe” by building a half-kilometre-high ladder constructed from flames. It is an endeavour that takes him more than 20 years to realise, and the film weaves much his life and work through those two decades’ seams.
“There is no success or failure in art.” – Cai Guo-Qiang
In one especially poignant moment, Cai breaks down when discussing how as a child in his home town of Quanzhou, China, he watched his father, an acclaimed calligrapher, be forced to burn his beloved books because of Mao’s cultural revolution. In oft-repeated acts of gorgeous defiance, Cai grew up to use fire to make his own art. “Playing with gunpowder,” he says, “set me free.”
Cai Guo-Qiang may well be the most famous artist you’ve never heard of. His awards include the International Golden Prize of the Venice Biennale, the Praemium Imperiale and the Alpert Award in the Arts. He has been exhibited by the likes of the Guggenheim in New York (the city where he mainly lives), London’s Tate Modern, and the National Art Museum of China, in Beijing. Stunning visual installations include suspended cars adorned in neon and a pack of flying, fighting wolves. But it is for his pyrotechnic performances that Cai is most revered.
Cai’s high altitude bombardments are nothing short of magical as he quite literally dyes even the day-lit skies. Numerous projectiles explode into colourful, powdered clouds, within which more traditional fireworks may then explode. We witness the artist transform the heavens into his own personal ethereal canvas, and, for a fleeting moment, sear his soul across his clouds. Then, in a puff of smoke, it is finished. There is profound sadness in witnessing such beauty evaporate before our eyes; in witnessing the creating, and ultimately immediate destruction, of such wonder in a series of symbolic cracks. It is a fleetingness that compels a certain introspection.
Such visionary does not go unnoticed. Cai is hired for a handful of government events, such as the opening and closing of the Beijing Olympics. It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing when such a mind is ordered to bend its artistic integrity for such stagnant and myopic bureaucrats. As an audience we are asked what it means to be successful. We are asked to consider the effects of, not just politics, but wealth and acclaim upon creativity.
And so, as a poetic counterweight, comes the climax — the building of the Sky Ladder, in secret, using dozens of volunteers in Cai’s home province of Fujian. The ladder, laden with explosives, is raised by a giant balloon under the shadow of night 500 metres into the inky abyss. Cai watches on nervously. His wife, Hong Hong, laments the project has been “like burning money”. The fuse ignites, and from top to bottom, wrung by wrung, the ladder lights up and stretches to break the black with flame. Cai allows himself a smile. Twenty-one years it has been in the making.
And then, it is gone.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is available on Netflix