After several attempts spanning decades and continents, artist Cai Guo-Qiang embarked once again to construct a near 1,700 foot firework ladder into the sky. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang by director Kevin Macdonald follows the project’s ultimate success and struggles throughout. Sharing his thoughts on the new documentary, Cai commented:
“I hope from this film, the audience can see a multi-layered artist and person. My work tends to be spectacular, but oftentimes behind the work there are struggles, compromises, defeats, and vulnerabilities. This film documented the arduous creative process, as well as my emotional connections with my family, home and country. Its authenticity is exactly what makes the film powerful.”
“The last [sky ladder] attempt was not meant as a public event. The story started on January 1st, 2015 when I returned to my hometown to host a 100th birthday celebration for my Grandma. I realized that her health was in decline. Grandma has always been the greatest supporter of my artistic dreams, but since I traveled all over the world to create artwork, she was never able to see any of them in person….”
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang
“I attempted to realize the Sky Ladder project in many cities around the world – Bath (1994), Shanghai (2001), Los Angeles (2012), and none of them proved successful due to weather conditions or permit issues. Because the work was conceived to be a public event, it faced many safety regulations,” Cai calmly reflected.
“The last attempt was not meant as a public event. The story started on January 1st, 2015 when I returned to my hometown to host a 100th birthday celebration for my Grandma. I realized that her health was in decline. Grandma has always been the greatest supporter of my artistic dreams, but since I traveled all over the world to create artwork, she was never able to see any of them in person. Right then I decided to make another attempt at Sky Ladder, this time in our hometown for her to see. However, two days before the event, I had to reconcile with the fact that she would be too weak to travel and see it in person. Thanks to new technology, she was able to see it via an iPad.”
“Watching the film gives me a new perspective about my life. From the young boy who grew up in China dreaming of touching the stars in the sky to the artist I am today, it has not been an easy journey. On this journey I have received kindness from many people, including the villagers on Huiyu Island who helped me realize Sky Ladder. Originally I thought they would be my only audience, but now because of this film, hundreds of millions of people around the world will be able to see the work. I am immensely moved and grateful.”
Sitting in a bright and modern living room, sipping white wine alongside his beautiful family, Cai’s life looks grand. A world-renowned artist, known for breaking boundaries using gunpowder and other mediums to present his world vision, any creative person would envy his success. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang shows that growing up in China, Cai’s life was far from his current New York life.
He recalls stories of love for his family and admiration of his father. He emotionally recounts the 1966 Chinese Cultural Revolution, which forced the world around him to crumble, and his father’s library of prized books to be destroyed.
Leaving his home in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China for Japan in the mid-eighties, Cai achieved success as a young, innovative artist using gunpowder. Reinvention away from his homeland, Cai desired further exploration of the medium to create large-scale pyrotechnic “explosion events.” “Explosions were what I heard and watched around me,” Cai recalls. These were not explosions of celebration, but turbulence and change.
“At first we didn’t know that the Sky Ladder project was going to be the main focus of the film, but it became clear to the director and producers as the stories unfolded.”
Artist Cai Guo-Qiang
“Much of the archival footage that you see in Sky Ladder dates from after I arrived in Japan. As I gained popularity, most of my work was documented by the Japanese television NHK. Since then, my studio has also been documenting my creative process. For the past two years the Sky Ladder film crew followed me as I created exhibitions and explosion events all over the world, from Argentina to China. At first we didn’t know that the Sky Ladder project was going to be the main focus of the film, but it became clear to the director and producers as the stories unfolded.”
One of the film’s producers is Wendi Deng. “Wendi and I have been friends for over 10 years. In New York, our children went to Chinese language school together on the weekends. I knew that she was involved in the film industry. When one of my studio staff, who came from a filmmaking background, suggested showing my life journey in a film, Wendi was the first person we approached. She eventually assembled an entire team.”
When asked how he feels fans of his art will respond to the Sky Ladder documentary, he paused reflectively.
“My art and sense of humor have always seemed to move and resonate with people. Over the years I have grasped a sense of my audience and what kind of work is well received. In fact, I am cautious not to make work that is too easily popular. This new film Sky Ladder, however, is not my artwork. It is an artwork by the director and producers, whereas I was the subject being filmed. My intuition for audience reception probably doesn’t apply to the documentary.”
Available on Netflix and in select theaters, documentary feature Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang will exhibit not only a last attempt and ultimate success of Cai Guo-Qiang’s nearly 1,700 feet pyrotechnic ladder into the sky, but a reflection of an artist who has prevailed balancing explosive works of art, cultural change, and ties with his family and origin.
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Cai Guo-Qiang’s next creation will ignite the world. Sky Ladder, a Netflix Original Documentary. Now Streaming on Netflix.
In his latest feature documentary, Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day In September, The Last King Of Scotland) has unfettered access to world-renowned contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang.
Cai’s work spans East and West, human and cosmic, the playful and the profound. His signature gunpowder paintings pay homage to the Chinese roots of the explosive medium, while incorporating elements of chance and unpredictability. His massive explosion events actively engage audiences around the globe—from his seminal 1993 work that extended the Great Wall of China with six miles of gunpowder fuse; to the daytime colored fireworks that ripped through the deserts of Doha, to the astonishing opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Told through the artist’s own words and those of family, friends, colleagues, and critics, Sky Ladder traces Cai’s meteoric rise from childhood in Mao’s China to pre-eminent global artist. We witness as Cai struggles with how to affect social change through art, and navigate the compromises and complexities that arise when you’ve made it to the top. When you’ve gone as far as he has, how do you challenge yourself?
If you’re Cai Guo-Qiang, you continue to chase the ambitious dream that has eluded you for 20 years—Sky Ladder—a 1,650 foot ladder of fire climbing into the skies, connecting heaven and earth. Sky Ladder: The Art Of Cai Guo-Qiang is the story of a unique artist at a pivotal moment in his life and times. Produced by Oscar-winner Fisher Stevens (THE COVE), Wendi Deng, and Hugo Shong.
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