Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Starring Cai Guo-Qiang

Known for his spectacular pyrotechnic displays, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang creates his most ambitious project yet: Sky Ladder, a visionary, explosive event that he pulls off in his hometown in China after 20 years of failed attempts.


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  • ★★★★ review by Ryan James Quinn on Letterboxd

    This is an amazing documentary as an examination of an artist, but also as an exploration of a humans journey to pursue a passion. At first I balked that this film would be padded for runtime, assuming it would strictly be an account of getting the Sky Ladder project completed. This film veers away from detailing the steps taken during the many attempts towards this piece to lay out the career of Cai Guo-Qiang. What seems like a detour circles back at the end to give great meaning and power to the art, signaling great craft of documentary filmmaking.

    I was fortunate enough to live in NYC when his exhibit at the Guggenheim was on display. My wife and I recall being drawn in by the cars, admiring the animals… but becoming memorized by his pieces created by exploding gunpowder over the canvas. The documentary explores the power of this art. It has the advantage of using a unique method, perhaps a new medium. To learn that the artist comes from a village known for creating fireworks, there is a personal through line that removes this from any risk of seeming like a gimmick. He is using something from his youth to create something as an adult.

    As his art progressed over the years, I really admire that his art needs to be experienced. There was great excitement when Banksy ran his outdoor October installation project a few years back, or Dismaland recently. Like most street art, it requires the viewer to be in a specific place to experience it. One of the most moving art experiences I’ve had was seeing Bill Viola “the Crossing” - the roaring sounds echoing through The Art Institute of Chicago are burnt into my memory, but years later revisiting that museum the piece was not there (it was part of an exhibit). But although it was moved, it is something that I could potentially hunt down and experience again.

    Cai Guo-Qiang takes the aesthetic of street arts need for a specific place and combines it with the installation / exhibit need for a specific time - then drives the point home by creating very “temporary” art that can only be experienced if present at the time. Like a sunset that just doesn’t look right on the screen when you attempt to photograph it, his art can not be fully understood or appreciated through youtube videos (or even high def Netflix filming).

    The documentary veers down a path of detailing his career, his rise to fame in the art world. Through this rise, he becomes a man that spends massive amounts of money to produce art though he comes from humble origins. His profile rises to the occasion of creating for the Olympics and other massive conventions. Through government intervention, his art is limited in scope and message. He is criticized for working with the government, and like most artists falls into the trappings of “selling out”. One art medium that always baffles me in terms of this is hip-hop. At it’s core, this is an artistic expression of real life struggles. But how can the youth from Straight Outta Compton continue to speak about struggle once they find themselves in a new socio-economic circles. The paradox is that as a hip-hop artist is recognized for their talent and becomes popular, they distance themselves from the environment that inspired their art. (Disclaimer - I know not all Hip-Hop is “struggle” based rhymes, I am generalizing for my point).

    Cai Guo-Qiang seems at odds with the notion that because he has the resources to do anything, his art begins to mean nothing. But out of his dealings with the government comes the Sky Ladder success. I love writing poems in sonnet form, because the challenge of fitting into a specific structure is a puzzle I enjoy solving. The Five Obstructions shows deftly that out of limitations rise great inspirations. I wish Von Trier would have made that a film series, challenge filmmakers every few years as he did Jørgen Leth. The Sky Ladder became more than just a piece of art finally realized. Because Guo-Qiang had to keep it secret from the government, it became a highly personal experience to the few that were present. The Olympics is arguably seen by everyone in the world, his art there was possible the grandest exposure an artist can ever achieve. Yet the project he so desperately wanted to complete after many years of attempts returned to a humble setting with humble audience. His grandmother became the only important observer. Rather than a great piece of art designed for many, it became a personal piece of art designed for one. As viewer of this film, I will never know the powerful beauty of the actual Sky Ladder burning towards the heavens - but I can revel in the beauty of this artists path and purpose.

  • ★★★½ review by james l. on Letterboxd

    There's some stunning shots of smoke plumes, LED fireworks, and even an atomic crater, but this documentary mostly rides on the strength of its subject. The gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang is so compelling that Sky Ladder couldn't be boring if it tried. The film is titled after a work of his twenty years in the making: a five-hundred meter ladder of fire to the sky.

    Like many films about art and artists, Sky Ladder is a film about obsession. But despite this, Cai seems like a pretty grounded person. He's not a dissident like Ai Weiwei, but he does have to balance the Chinese government's patronage with his own creative expression, especially working on major state projects like at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 APEC forum.

    For all of Sky Ladder's scale and ambition, Cai stages his passion project in his home village, specifically for his grandmother to see. There's something beautiful seeing the ladder finally being lit - something that took decades of work, seen only by a few people for minutes. As it's explained in the beginning of the film, gunpowder was discovered in China while looking for an elixir of immortality - and Sky Ladder makes an ephemeral work of art live on forever.

  • ★★★★★ review by byscts on Letterboxd

    2017 REVIEW #63

    A very strong documentary not only in its subject material but in terms of filmmaking and especially an editing perspective. Absolutely beautiful visuals that tie in well with the philosophy of the artist and his views on art and politics.

  • ★★★½ review by Chris on Letterboxd

    Those fireworks look amazing.

  • ★★★½ review by Greg Achey on Letterboxd

    Pretty dope.

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