At one point in “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang,” the film mentions its subject Cai Guo-Qiang’s desire to top the great Pablo Picasso. Under normal circumstances, the statement would appear to be overly arrogant. But as director Kevin Macdonald proves in this new documentary, Cai Guo-Qiang is no ordinary artist. Indeed, this account of his life and work shows a man of incomparable vision and talent.
Framed around the titular Sky Ladder art project, Macdonald traces the political and personal history leading up to this ambitious venture. Set to take place in his Chinese hometown, this fireworks display will reach 1,650 feet into the sky, representing a “dialogue” between earth and space. As we learn through his journey, the concept reflects the philosophical underpinnings of all his art, which evolved from his first encounter with the Chinese invention of gunpowder. Chronicling the difficult days of China’s “Cultural Revolution” to Cai’s current status as a world-renowned artist, Macdonald creates his own work of art in this portrait of the man behind some of the most awe-inspiring artwork of our generation.
Indeed, Macdonald vividly brings the thought-provoking spectacle of Cai Guo-Qiang’s one-of-a-kind work to the screen. Literally explosive, the signature fireworks displays are truly a sight to behold. From the unforgettable opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games to the culminating Sky Ladder, Macdonald uses his filmmaking finesse to evoke the grandeur and anticipation surrounding each piece.
The film could have easily rested on the beauty of the dazzling art, but Macdonald’s approach is far from superficial, as befitting Cai himself. Through archival footage and interviews with colleagues, friends and family, we get a keen sense of the “who, what, why and how” of the work. His formative childhood is particularly noteworthy, indicating how he was impacted by his art-inclined father and the antagonism dealt him under the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, the film captures the environmental activism of the art, both in theory (the themes) and in practice (the use of biodegradable materials). And Macdonald makes a good point in showing how this approach conflicts with the Chinese status quo.
As we follow his rise to fame, Cai’s journey transcends his relevance to Chinese society and politics, while also remaining deeply personal. The Sky Ladder, for example, underwent several failed attempts, indicating Cai’s persistence and determination to challenge himself. And thanks to the insight garnered by the film, the touching revelation that this project is dedicated to his aging grandmother comes as no surprise.
Ultimately, Macdonald’s filmmaking may not match up to the experimental innovation of his unique subject. But the inherent appeal of Cai’s art and philosophical passion make for captivating viewing. His words and his work speak volumes.
“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” opens in select theaters and on Netflix Oct. 14.