How A 500-Meter Ladder Of Fire Ignited In The Sky

The documentary "Sky Ladder" follows artist Cai Guo-Qiang on the artistic challenge of a lifetime.

For his grandmother's 100th birthday, Chinese conceptual artist Cai Guo-Qiang pulled out all the stops.

Early one morning just before 5 a.m., Cai unfurled a 500-meter long ladder into the dark sky, with the help of a hot air balloon. He then ignited the ladder, covered in quick burning fuses and gold fireworks, sending a glittering bridge of fire straight into the depths of universe. 

Titled "Sky Ladder," the two-minute-and-thirty-second performance was a childhood dream of Cai's, the result of 21 years of intense preparation. He had previously tried to execute the piece three times, in 1992, 2001 and 2012, to varying degrees of success. But in the wee hours of June 15, 2015, the whole thing went off like magic, leaving even Cai looking utterly hypnotized. "Isn’t your grandson awesome?" Cai asked his grandmother watching over Skype. 

A recent documentary by Kevin Macdonald follows Cai on his journey to this monumental moment, in the 76-minute documentary "Sky Ladder." The cinematic portrait chronicles Cai's growth as a creative and an individual, framing his work both within the context of his artist father's influence and the wider impact of China's Cultural Revolution. Cai mentions a connection between his own explosive-based works and his father's far more traditional calligraphy in their shared dependence on spontaneity. He refers to the explosions as calligraphic in their methodical yet utterly extemporaneous movements. 

Cai also speaks of his father in terms of China's Cultural Revolution, which began when Cai was nine. His father, an intellectual who worked as the manager of a government bookstore, was forced to burn his collection of books during the total upheaval of culture and tradition. Cai was enlisted to help, spending many nights watching books erupt into flames against the night sky. The film floats back and forth between Cai's personal and artistic journeys, capturing the intensely personal origins of what's become a wildly sensational artistic practice. It doesn't hurt that the film folds in considerable footage of Cai's work, which, though enthralling via laptop screen, scream to be seen in person. 

Using the sky as his canvas, Cai often sparks soaring symphonies of technicolored clouds and golden bolts of lightning, choreographed into dances that would enthrall both human and alien audiences. Think James McNeill Whistler's 19th century painting "Nocturne in Black and Gold -- The Falling Rocket," but in live action, complete with booms and bangs. Or Nick Cave's boisterous Soundsuits translated into natural elements and catapulted into the night sky. This is his practice.

There are also Cai's sculptural works, often incorporating taxidermy animals and automobiles, and a series of action paintings made from post-immolation markings. "Playing with gunpowder set me free," Cai says in the film, which features the artist dexterously tracing a canvas in gunpowder and stones only to set it all ablaze. The resulting works quite literally exploded history, and thus announced Cai an art world force to be reckoned with. 

But the most breathtaking sequences are those of firecrackers and gunpowder in motion, devastating abstract formations presented in the most uncanny of media. In one installation, 2011's "Black Ceremony" in Dohar, Qatar, sparks race frantically in a flat circle with a trail of smoke in their wake, a real life version of Wile E. Coyote chasing roadrunner ad infinitum. Soon after, shells are launched into the sky, the pixels bursting in unison, as if a flock of crows had apparated into thin air. 

The film also explores Cai's oft-criticized willingness to collaborate with the Chinese government, more successfully with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and less so with the APEC China 2014 Summit, when bureaucracy bogged down Cai's vision. It's clear the artist, who moved to Japan in the 1980s and currently lives in New York City, has a complicated relationship to his birthplace. But when it was time to actualize the vision of "Sky Ladder" once and for all, Cai was quick to return to his hometown of Quanzhou, surrounded by a crew and a few close family and friends. 

It's blissful to watch Cai witness his final masterpiece, the excitement in his eyes like that of a kid witnessing a fireworks show for the first time. As his artistic reputation prospers and expectations grow accordingly, Cai's visions become ever more ambitious and seemingly impossible. But for the man who once proclaimed "art could be my space time tunnel into the universe," anything seems viable. 

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