Trace the rise of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang from childhood in Mao’s China to global art world superstar, and join his quest to realize his lifelong obsession: Sky Ladder.
Cai Guo-Qiang has had a dream of going to space ever since he saw the Americans land on the moon. Who could have predicted that a young boy from a small town in the Fujian Province of Mao’s China would go on to realize his dream, perhaps indirectly, but no less astonishingly. “Art could be my space-time travel, connecting me to the universe,” the man himself says wistfully in director Kevin Macdonald’s (“The Last King of Scotland”) immersive and beautiful documentary, “Sky Ladder: The Art Of Cai Guo-Qiang.” Cai’s pieces defy easy categorization – some of them literally explosive, others implosive – but all representing the inner torment and, ultimately, optimism of Cai, who is haunted by the tumultuous past but, like all great artists, exorcizes his demons through his astonishing work.
“Sky Ladder” starts with a montage of things exploding, an assault on the senses that pulls us into the mindset of its outwardly serene protagonist. Inspired by gunpowder – its historical significance in Chinese culture, as well as its representation of something simultaneously lethal and ephemeral – Cai went on to turn a conduit for violence into a source of eye-melting beauty. In 1993, hell-bent on making contact with extraterrestrials, the artist decided to prolong the Great Wall of China by stretching a gunpowder fuse all the way to the Gobi desert. His grandiose opening/closing of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics ceremony was a sight to behold. His fireworks leave effervescent, aquarelle mists that dissipate, resembling souls, once joyful, now deteriorating.
His love for his 100-year-old ill grandmother is one of the driving factors behind Cai’s relentless strive for greatness. The entire “Sky Ladder” project, on which the artist has been focusing for over 20 years – and the running thread of Macdonald’s doc – is dedicated to the woman that clearly means the world to Cai. After three failed attempts, he finally manages to assemble the right team at the right time for the 1,650-foot ladder (anchored by helium balloons!) to work.
Before that happens, the film delves into his past, mostly told by Cai himself, with his family and friends contributing thoughtful tidbits about what drove the artist, tracing his meteoric rise to international fame. He readily talks about his move from China to Japan and then to New York, where he hit the zenith of popularity. We also get to see some of Cai’s less physically explosive, but equally awe-inspiring work, a few influenced by his love for the environment (a pack of wolves, stretched in an arc that leads into a glass cubicle), others projecting socio-political statements (oil dripping into viscous smudge, a ghastly/gorgeous image) – all in one way or another influenced by his country’s Communist regime, a personal way of defying it. He denies being overtly political, but this film’s philosophical stance – and his work – raises the question: “Is Cai in denial?”
Whether that’s the case or not, there’s no question that Cai is wondrously talented, eloquent and perseverant-as-all-hell. When Steven Spielberg himself is in awe of your creations, you know you’ve made it. Built on contrasts between the artist’s explosive art pieces and the humble, soft-spoken artist himself, his country’s mythical serenity and violent regime, and of course, the brutality and fragility of the work itself, “Sky Ladder” is, above all, a poetic statement on the importance of art.
Evoking James Marsh’s masterpiece “Man on Wire,” Macdonald’s film is about the pursuit of dreams against all odds; both films culminate in searing sequences of impeccable power, visions of dreams come true. While “Sky Ladder” lacks Marsh’s scope, suspense and nuance, it’s nevertheless a gorgeous little reminder that we should all make lo…, sorry, art, not war and, like Cai, always reach for the heavens.
Opens in select theaters in New York & L.A. October 14th