Sky Ladder: the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang Dir. Kevin Macdonald

[Netflix; 2016]

Styles: documentary
Others: Koyaanisqatsi, Zabriskie Point, Touching the Void, One Day in September

Coils fire off, tracing the path of a ladder across the waters of Huiyu Island Harbor and then reaching into the sky. It is a blazing ladder floating in the air, but lasting less than three minutes; it is a spectacle worthy of tears. This project is the culmination of a 20 year dream — a monumental but ephemeral work — imagined by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, which director Kevin Macdonald and producer Wendy Deng document in Sky Ladder: the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.

In addition to outlining the biographical and historical context of the artist’s work, the film also compiles Guo-Qiang’s firework performances. This collection of footage recalls the explosive cinematic visions of Antonioni’s finale in Zabriskie Point, the space shuttle plumes of Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and Bruce Conner’s footage of an atomic explosion in Crossroads. Cai Guo-Qiang’s art, like these works, revels in the beauty of explosions, but it is the intentions behind his compositions that set him apart. Whereas the others imply a direct message of destruction, and perhaps apocalypse, Guo-Qiang’s relationship to explosives carry added, generative layers of complexity.

Sky Ladder traces the origins of Guo-Qiang’s work back to the invention of fireworks over a thousand years ago, made in the process of trying to discover an elixir for immortality. For Guo-Qiang, fireworks connote both joy and the primeval desire to be connected with the universe. The artist describes the experience of watching the Americans launching the first humans into space: “I was sad because I thought I would never make it to space myself. But later on I realized that art could be my space-time tunnel connecting me to the universe.”

Yet having lived through the tumult of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the association of fireworks and explosives also carries darker tones for Guo-Qiang. He painfully recalls burning his family’s library collection with his father, an artist and avid book collector. Guo-Qiang’s use of fireworks, especially with their aural similarities to gunfire, cannot help but connote destruction. His piece Elegy: Explosion Event, which took place on the occasion of his 2014 Shanghai exhibition The 9th Wave, carries the weight of all that the name implies. It is one of mourning for what one imagines may have been lost in the massive upheaval of the last century in China.

The film’s observation of the artist at work in his studio reveals the intuitive process and calculated chaos that goes into creating one of Guo-Qiang’s explosions and gunpowder drawings. Watching him throw gunpowder on a massive sheet of paper on the floor, one is reminded of both Jackson Pollock and Gutai action painters wildly gesticulating to create their works. An artist coming of age in the 80s, this comparison brings to mind the shared challenge many other young artists in Asia faced at the time: that of staking out an identity in the East or the West. Guo-Qiang tells us that he consciously sought to ignore this distinction. Instead of choosing an Eastern or Western audience, he sought to create work that would communicate with the universe itself.

Like Macdonald’s past works, which includes The Last King of Scotland and One Day in September, this film does not shy away from politics. Because of the undercurrent of political consciousness that runs through his oeuvre, Guo-Qiang inevitably chafes against Chinese authorities. This situation becomes especially apparent through the commissioned work he creates for projects such as the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Cityscape Fireworks Show. Through footage of party meetings with the artist, Guo-Qiang is seen performing the act of skillfully balancing both his own artistic integrity and the expectations of the Chinese government.

The documentary not only covers the historical contexts and challenges that inform the artist’s work — it also plumbs his personal life and upbringing by two powerful figures, his grandmother and father, who together serve as a driving inspiration for Guo-Qiang to realize Sky-Ladder in a Chinese fishing village much like his grandmother’s hometown. After expatriating to Japan and then to the United States to freely practice his art, his family is his main tie to his identity in China. Guo-Qiang’s wife Hong Hong states, with a note of exhaustion and exasperation, “Making Sky Ladder is just like burning money. It’s so expensive to produce. Do you know how much money we’re putting into this? Plus, we have to execute all of this in secret. How many people will get to see it? We can’t even invite an audience to come and see it. This time Sky Ladder is just for Cai’s grandmother. That’s all.”

Yet the “money burning” and the intimacy of the event is what preserves the purity of the work. It reflects the same intention as the Chinese money burning rituals Guo-Qiang and his family conduct to honor their ancestors. When Sky Ladder finally goes off without a hitch after four other failed attempts in major art capitals, the viewer experiences a breathlessness one might imagine akin to Guo-Qiang’s experience of the the American shuttle launch. With gratitude to the crew of Sky Ladder: the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, we are all able to witness this fleeting contact with the universe.

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