‘Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang’ Examines a Different Kind of Artist

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Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Except for those deeply invested in the art world, the name Cai Guo-Qiang isn’t a household name. Over the years, though, Cai Guo-Qiang has made his name in the art world through his wild and artistic expressions using fireworks, though he did initially start as a painter. The life and art of Guo-Qiang is the subject of the new Netflix documentary from director Kevin Macdonald, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, which also follows the artist as he embarks on another attempt to realize his dream, a massive ladder reaching to the heavens as fireworks cascade off the rungs of the ladder. It’s a fascinating documentary that challenges preconceived notions about art as well as the constraints of being a working artist under the Communist government of China.

Most documentaries that explore the life of an artist come across as fairly stale. The camera slowly pans across a painting while a talking head explains the art’s resonance is the standard formula. However, the art of Cai Guo-Qiang is made for the cinematic medium, with colorful fireworks slowly filling the sky with vibrant colors. I know this may sound unpatriotic, but I rarely find fireworks that interesting anymore. I mean, how much new can you do with sulfur and gunpowder firing off into the night sky? Well, the first display of visual brilliance contained within Sky Ladder proves that Cai Guo-Qiang has devised new and exciting ways that enrich the fireworks experience as well as a form of socially conscious environmentalism. The fireworks explode in their dazzling synchronicity, containing biodegradable powder that gives the explosions an artistic resonance, a trail of smoke that transcends into vibrant color.

The film traces back to Guo-Qiang’s youth growing up under the reign of Mao Tse-tung. Guo-Qiang’s father was himself and artist, working in Chinese calligraphy until his trade was deemed unnecessary by Mao’s “permanent revolution,” that deemed aspects of the old ways obsolete and in need of destruction. After that, his father worked at a bookstore, opting to use his pay to purchase book instead of family necessities; seeing books as the means with which his children will earn their fortune despite the protests of Guo-Qiang’s grandmother. After Mao’s death, there was a sense of new freedom in China, and Guo-Qiang used that freedom to explore himself as an artist and expand his art beyond simply oil paints on a canvas. Therein is where Cai Guo-Qiang became the celebrated artist he is today.

Sky Ladder doesn’t focus merely on all the triumphs of Cai Guo-Qiang’s work within the art world. It’s also critical of the work he’s done for Chinese government, including the massive opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics in 2012. Critics of this decision are given their say as is Guo-Qiang to defend his work for the government. Where this part of the film become most interesting is as Macdonald and his crew follow Gio-Qiang as he tries to orchestrate a daring new form of display for the Chinese government ahead of an economic summit attended by world leaders and dignitaries, including Vladmir Putin and Barack Obama. The bureaucrats of the government stifle Guo-Qiang at every available opportunity, making the artist apoplectic at their unwillingness to take risks. This is a dreamer, an artist and his expansive visions are met with nothing but resistance, and seems to almost entirely crush any trust he had in them before this encounter.

More than anything, the film is the struggle for Cai Guo-Qiang to construct his dream, the eponymous Sky Ladder. For the artist, it’s a vision that transcends nations and is about reaching into the stratosphere. As with many dreamers, his vision exceeds what’s humanly possible. For decades, Cai Guo-Qiang has tried in vain to make this a reality, enlisting numerous aides to help with the logistics and yet still nothing to show for it. Despite the seemingly never-ending struggle, Sky Ladder concludes with what the title promises, and the artist is even able to show his grandmother the majestic events over video chat. It’s another example of how the film’s subject makes for visually awe-inspiring moments of artistry, one that transcends canvas and paint as well as amazingly cinematic.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is a sharp portrait of an artist who dreams beyond the possible, willing to push himself and the world of art beyond the rigid confines of galleries. Kevin Macdonald’s film is part biography and part examination of the artistic process, yet is always compelling as its subject dares to dream bigger than his contemporaries. It’s also a portrait of a man who is deeply invested in his family. Guo-Qiang is determined to get the Sky Ladder into the air so his 100-year-old grandmother can see it, and he does just that. A month after Sky Ladder ascended, Guo Qiang’s grandmother passed away and the film is dedicated to her. The artistry on display in Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and definitely not the kind of art you could catch in any art district throughout the world.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

A fascinating look at a different kind of artist, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang examines the life of the unique artist as well as follow him as tries to realize his dream work.

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