Cai Guo-Qiang Sets the Art World Aflame in New Netflix Documentary

The Chinese artist tells us the true story behind "Sky Ladder."

Cai Guo Qiang, Sky Ladder (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix.

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang is known for highly-publicized public spectacles that fill the sky with shimmering fireworks or colorful smoke.

A new documentary film on the artist, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, released on Netflix October 14, goes in a slightly different direction. It is based on piece carried out in secret in a small Chinese fishing village under cover of night.

Perhaps Cai‘s most compelling, personal work yet, Sky Ladder is a 1,650-foot-tall ladder, held aloft by a giant balloon and rigged with explosives. As the massive sculpture ignites, it creates a fiery vision that miraculously ascends to the heavens.

When a video of the June 2015 event was leaked online some months afterward, it was an instant hit. “Within two days there were 30 million views,” Cai told artnet News during a visit to his East Village studio. By comparison, there were only a couple of hundred people present on the day of the event.

Cai Guo Qiang, "Remembrance," chapter two of Elegy, an explosion event for the opening of "Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave," realized on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, August 8, 2014. Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix/photographer Lin Yi.

Cai Guo Qiang, “Remembrance,” chapter two of Elegy, an explosion event for the opening of “Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave,” realized on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, August 8, 2014. Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix/photographer Lin Yi.

The film opens with Cai reflecting on the history of gunpowder, one of China’s most significant contributions to the world. “They were actually looking for an elixir to make themselves immortal,” he said.

In a way, the search for immortality was very much bound up in the two-decade-long process of bringing the vision of Sky Ladder to life—not for Cai, but for his 100-year-old grandmother, to whom the project was dedicated. “She has been my biggest supporter,” the artist noted.

“She used to be very healthy and very strong,” Cai added. “She fell when she was 98; after that her health deteriorated very rapidly.” Despite the pride Cai’s grandmother took in his accomplishments, she had never been able to see one of his explosion events in person.

Cai Guo-Qiang with <em>Ascending Dragon Project for Extraterrestrials No. 2</em> Japan, 1989. Courtesy of Cai Studio, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Cai Guo-Qiang with Ascending Dragon Project for Extraterrestrials No. 2 Japan, 1989. Courtesy of Cai Studio,
© Cai Guo-Qiang.

“This is where I want to make a ladder to connect the Earth to the universe,” said Cai in 1994, ahead of his first, unsuccessful attempt to realize the project. Bad weather kept him from attempting the piece. He was similarly stymied in Shanghai in 2001, due to post-9/11 security concerns, and in Los Angeles in 2012, when the permit was revoked due to the risk of forest fires.

For the fourth and final attempt, Cai opted to go ahead without seeking official permission. Sans permits, the performance had to be a secret, at the risk of being shut down by the authorities. (There didn’t end up being any repercussions from the unauthorized piece, but just to be sure, Cai took off for Japan afterward.)

As Cai struggled to finally complete the piece on remote Huiyu Island Harbor in Fujian province, the fear that his grandmother would not live to see the piece performed was considerable. Ultimately too ill to attend in person, she had to watch via cell phone, and died just a month later. 

Sky Ladder, Cai’s attempt to commune with the unseen world, was the perfect parting gift.

Cai Guo-Qiang, <em>Seasons of Life Fall</em> (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Seasons of Life Fall (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio/the Yokohama Museum of Art, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Though Cai has no plans to recreate the technically challenging piece (“I never do the same project twice,” he explained), he is happy that something that has been so important to him for so long struck a chord with the public. “I was touched and happy to see so many people could relate to it. It kind of proved the power of artworks,” he said, calling the Sky Ladder “universal.”

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is behind the film, which follows both the behind the scenes process of bringing the piece to life and the larger trajectory of Cai’s career. Cai’s friend Wendi Murdoch and the actor Fisher Stevens served as producers.

The Chinese government looms large throughout the film. As a child during the Cultural Revolution, Cai helped his father, and artist and bookseller who spent most of his salary buying his own wears, burn the vast majority of the family’s library.

Cai Guo-Qiang, <em>Seasons of life Summer</em> (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio/the Yokohama Museum of Art, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Seasons of life Summer (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio/the Yokohama Museum of Art, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Cai is perhaps best-known for the spectacular firework show he created for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but there are some who question his willingness to collaborate with an authoritarian regime. “Everwhere in the world, artists work with their governments with projects like the Olympics,” noted Cai in the film. “But this is only a problem if you’re Chinese.”

As young artist, he told artnet News, it was easy to get gunpowder in China, but securing “exhibitions were very hard” due to government censorship. “Now,” he allowed, it is “a lot more free.”

On the other hand, there’s also Cai’s disappointing involvement with the government’s 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. The filmmakers sat in on meetings where the artist’s vision was severely compromised by government officials, their restrictions reducing a thoughtful art piece into a straightforward fireworks show.

There’s a reason he now resides primarily in New York: “You can be yourself” there, said Cai. “That’s the best part.”

Regardless of government influence, the documentary’s footage of the artist’s explosion events, like the Remembrance, a riot of environmentally-friendly colored powder that marked the 2014 opening of “The Ninth Wave” at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, is nothing short of spectacular.

Cai’s work has done wonders for the fireworks industry, with companies like Grucci working hard to develop new innovations to bring the artist’s increasingly complex visions to life.

Chances to see such work in person are rare, but the film offers something even more special, with behind the scenes shots of the artist at work at his studio, igniting his signature “gunpowder paintings” including a painting version of Sky Ladder.

Seeing the smoke seethe out from beneath cardboard panels placed atop the canvas, the sense of anticipation is undeniable. The big reveal of the image below, created from the power of the explosion is nothing short of magical.

Cai Guo-Qiang, <em>Poppy Series Hallucination No.1</em> (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Poppy Series Hallucination No.1 (2015). Courtesy of Cai Studio, © Cai Guo-Qiang.

When artnet News visited him at his New York studio, Cai was completing a new series of explosive works using colored gunpowder for the first time. “Colors kind of distracted me,” said Cai of his previous reluctance to take his work in this direction. “Black is more pure and spiritual, very emotional, but also dangerous.”

Those new works are currently on view at Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum in “Cai Guo-Qiang: My Stories of Painting.” They represent the next step in Cai’s artistic journey.

“I hope this movie will encourage a lot more young artists,” said Cai. “It’s not easy to be an artist, but it’s very meaningful.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics