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Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Robin Menchen: Kevin Macdonald’s documentary "Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang" is as fleeting and elegant as the gunpowder events mounted by Cai Guo-Qiang.

Kevin Macdonald’s documentary "Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang" is as fleeting and elegant as the gunpowder events mounted by Cai Guo-Qiang.

sky ladder

Kevin Macdonald ("Last King Of Scotland") begins with a brief history of fireworks, discovered by Chinese Alchemists searching for the elixir of immortality.

The first fireworks were burning pieces of bamboo, which exploded because they were hollow. Ironically Cai uses Bamboo when he finally ace’s impossib;e dream,, the Sky–Ladder.

Cai was born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. He was exposed to Western Art and literature, as his father, an artist and collector of rare texts, ran a bookstore. In a sense his epic works are the opposite of his father's cautious art, miniature landscapes drawn on matchboxes.

Cai Guo-Qiang grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Black and white archival images show life during the Cultural Revolution, a time of book burnings, pubic chastisements, ransacking of bourgeois homes and the demolition and pillaging of monuments, temples and other antiquities by the Red Guard .

Celebratory fireworks and explosive demolitions seem to have worked their way into his art. He has cited Mao's Utopian vision as a prime influence, "Destroy nothing, create nothing."

Before emerging as one of the world's most celebrated Fireworks artists, Cai Guo-Qiang acting in two Martial Arts films ("The Spring and Fall of a Small Town" and "Real Kung Fu of Shaolin") and studied stagecraft at the Shanghai Theater Academy.

Cai began working in gunpowder, colored dust and oils in the early 80's; now he creates vast murals in the sky through timed explosions, contemplative and thrilling, symphonic in their ambition, his works are sought after by governments, civic and corporate clients around the world. Unlike may artists of his generation, he is willing to work for the Chinese Government, seeing his role as a Gunpowder artist as part of large ritual celebrations; plus, they can foot the bill.

While living in Japan (1986 to 1995) Cai developed a series of paintings exploring the properties of gunpowder, a workshop leading to his gargantuan signature "explosion events". The paintings, drawn by traces of burnt gunpowder, are ephemeral portraits of what Cai terms “disruptive energy”.

sky ladder

Cai became famous for his series of political site-specific projects. "Projects for Extraterrestrials No. 10” (1993), shown in the film, extended the Western edge of the Great Wall with six-mile-long gunpowder fuses trailing into the Gobi Desert.

His solo site specific installations like “I Want to Believe,” which featured works “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows" (1998), a suspended fishing boat pierced with 3,000 arrows and ‘Head On’ (2006), an arc of 99 life sized wolves leaping towards a glass wall in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda), are parsed in Art Journals, yet Cai remains virtually unknown to the general Western audience.

Inspired by traditional symbols, and arts and crafts, including shanshui paintings, medicine and botanical art, he stands apart from the current generation of Critical contemporary Chinese artists (Ai Weiwei).

Cai seems almost Zen like, living at the peak of the art world, working without an art dealer.

He's mounted large-scale award-winning pieces in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Qatar, Japan, Ukraine, Italy, Taiwan and the US, where he now lives and works.

Cai Guo-Qiang created a daytime fireworks display in Doha, Qatar using military shells and pastel colored smoke, as part of his Black Ceremony exhibition at the Arab Museum of Modern Art.

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Inspired by traditional symbols, and arts and crafts, including shanshui paintings, medicine and botanical art, he stands apart from the current generation of Critical contemporary Chinese artists (Ai Weiwei).

One could watch Cai's transitory images forever. DP's Robert Yeoman and Florian Zinke capture his more traditional displays, but it is minutes of his abstract moving mural "Elegy: Explosion Event,” which mesmerizes. "Elegy"(the opening of his 2014 Shanghai exhibition, “The Ninth Wave”) deployed over the Huangpu River. It's a roiling symphony of colored smoke, with distinct movements from impressionist pastoral passages to bold crescendos; morphing compositions of abstract art that linger on your retina and in your mind. As many of his large-scale pieces in China, it’s a visual rebuke of the country's pollution nightmare, a picture in eco-friendly colored powders.

His work was part of the opening and closing Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (he served as director of visual and special effects) and he was the Director of Fireworks Festivities for China's 60th National Day, October 2009, a triumphant celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Although he's created many political projects, some within China, he accepts a role as official state artist.

Macdonald addresses the controversial role Cai plays when working for the Communist Regime. Cai accepts a job creating fireworks for the APEC China 2014 Summit, a gathering of world economic leaders in Beijing. He finds himself and his vision compromised by ceaseless demands from his bosses. Politics trumps Cai's environmental message. He becomes a failure, a hack, but remains unruffled. He puts up with it. Defending himself from a critical interviewer he ask whether other international artist take this kind of scrutiny for working with their governments

Classical Chinese art portrays the Seasons as progression of evanescent moments in nature, Cai Guo-Qiang's work creates a similar joy in transcience writ large across the sky.

Ever since his workshop days in Japan, he's been obsessed with creating a Ladder In The Sky, exploring ways to create a structure that could hang in the air and support a series of fuses. Each time he found a sponsor to underwrite the Ladder something fell through, Finally, as shown in the film, he decided to pay for the experiment himself, to create it in the fishing village on Huiyu Island, Gwanhzhu, where his grandmother was born.

Using volunteer local fishermen and residents, they create the Ladder, which Cai plans to display for his grandmother. After 20 years of frustration, he raised a miraculous Sky-Ladder 1650 feet of burning steel enforced bamboo steps, each alighting in sequence. For two and a half minutes, it climbed into the sky, held aloft by an enormous helium balloon.

Forbidden by the Government to mount the art in China, Cai films it on his phone. His 100 year-old grandmother, too frail to attend on the day, watches from her bed on Skype. “Isn’t your grandson awesome?” he chortles. He seems boyish, gleeful when exploding things.

The image of Huiyu Island residents celebrating their accomplishment seems of a piece with the humble almost monastic presence of Cai Guo-Qiang. It's a poetic end to this delicate film.

The film was the idea of Cai-pal Wendi Murdoch (producer). She approached producers Hugh Shong, Fisher Stevens, and Macdonald. Robert Yeoman (Wes Anderson's DP) shot the exquisite documentary. Alex Hefffes (Macdonald's constant composer) composed the artful minimal score.

Bennett Miller director of the brilliant "Capote" (2005) " Moneyball" (2011) and "Foxcatcher"(2014) served as Executive producer.

Putting Cai Guo-Qiang's work in context:

Many artists born in the 50's moved abroad in a spirit of critique of the current government. Artists like Ma Desheng, Huang Ru, expats like Li Shuang, Ma Desheng (both living in France) and Qu Leilei, who lives and works in London. This generation contributed to the unauthorized “Stars” exhibition in Beijing in 1979, gaining global media attention from Western journalist also critical of China's regime.

The following generation of "Political Pop" artists (as they were dubbed in the West) Yue Minjun, Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun, seen as a protest movement spurred by the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, sold work for millions of dollars in the 1990's.

Famed multi-media activist AI Wei Wei was arrested and detained for three months.

Cai, who now lives and works in New York takes large-scale commissions al over the world, including State functions for the Chinese Government, but brings his own environmental political message to those projects.

In 2012, Cai was honored as one of five Laureates for the prestigious Praemium Imperiale, an award that recognizes lifetime achievement in the arts in categories not covered by the Nobel Prize. He was also one of five artists who received the first U.S. Department of State - Medal of Arts award for his outstanding commitment to international cultural exchange.

Robin Menken