Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang: Cultural Revolution, by David Bax
The history of fireworks is so closely tied to China, where they were invented, that it’s hard to decontextualize the celebratory phenomenon. In the early scenes of Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, in which we see the artist testing configurations of gunpowder and colors on a rooftop in a city the movie tells us is “Liuyang, fireworks capital of China,” the images come across as playfully pedestrian. These are boys playing with explosions, just like they do across the world. But Cai, as we learn, is something more. He’s an artist who uses fireworks as his medium. More than that, though, he’s an artist so successful as to call into question the very purpose of art itself.
Cai Guo-Qiang started creating explosion-based art in the 1980s. By the 2000s, he was one of China’s most well-known voices, as demonstrated by his awe-inspiring fireworks presentation during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics in Beijing. Success, though, brings with it compromise, especially in a nation as tightly controlled as China. Even as he became a source of nationalist pride, though, Cai held onto a dream: A massive, personal fireworks installation called “Sky Ladder” that he developed and attempted for more than twenty years.
Sky Ladder was to be an bid to connect the earth to the heavens, a fiery Tower of Babel that would be Cai’s crowning achievement. After attempts to mount it in 1994, 2001 and 2012 were waylaid by a combination of bad weather and politics, Macdonald joins Cai for the massive undertaking of the fourth endeavor.
Before we get to Cai’s life’s work, though, Macdonald takes us on a tour of his life. Cai’s father was a struggling artist who imbued his son with a belief in the power of expression, often foregoing necessities like food in favor of necessities like books. Eventually, though, the Cultural Revolution that started in the mid-1960s brought the family low, forcing them to burn off their collection of tomes or face retribution from the state.
Clearly, though, Cai was not cowed by these actions, which amounted to no less than an attempt at intellectual genocide. From its beginnings, his art bore no trace of timidity, taking over entire skylines and waterfronts. It’s a shame, really, that most people who watch Sky Ladder will do so on their computers and televisions, as a function of its Netflix release. Macdonald and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman (Wes Anderson’s go-to guy) clearly intended this to be experienced on a big screen. Cai may not always produce the kind of art that hangs in galleries and museums (though he does make that stuff too and it’s incredible) but Yeoman wisely draws his camera back, framing the presentations as if they were paintings, only occasionally allowing us to peak up close as one might do when standing before the work of an Impressionist master or the like.
If that were the extent of Sky Ladder‘s ambitions, it would still be worth your time, even if only as a mildly contemplative spectacle. But Macdonald has deeper, more pressing concerns in mind. He interrogates Cai’s very successes, allowing his critics to describe his late period collaborations with the government as propaganda and then giving Cai and his defenders room to rebut. Cai himself declares that these things are only “a problem because I’m Chinese,” pointing out that Damien Hirst didn’t receive the same criticisms after his involvement in the 2012 London Olympics. The great film director Zhang Yimou (who served as the artistic director of the 2010 opening ceremonies) states bluntly that Western artists and art lovers simply can’t understand the situation of those like him and Cai. Zhang’s straightforwardness cuts to the quick, making it all the more impressive when Cai, a man whose own family was crippled by the policies of Chairman Mao, takes it upon himself to stage Sky Ladder on his own, a massive and quite expensive work to which he only invites a small audience of friends and family (as well as, of course, Macdonald’s cameras). After all these years, Sky Ladder is not just Cai’s masterpiece. It’s a work of redemption and a testament to the vitality of art.