The California drought comes up unexpectedly in the fascinating documentary, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.” Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) helps us understand the political and social forces that developed one of China’s major artists and his final success with his “Sky Ladder” project after many failures. Art requires money and sometimes doing something different, but what is the price?
The movie begins at a low-tech factory in China where workers are making and packing gunpowder for fireworks. Cai explains that fireworks were discovered in China when chemists were attempting to find an elixir for eternal life. They called it “fire medicine.”
You may not be familiar with Cai, but you might have seen his work. Cai is the designer behind the spectacular fireworks display for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Macdonald uses that event as a teaser because before that Cai had many other fireworks art pieces and events.
Tatsumi Matatoshi, technical director of Cai Studio, explains in Japanese, “He always says that there is no success or failure in art. He starts all his projects with that attitude.” The “Sky Ladder” project, Matatoshi comments, has failed many times.
Cai’s first attempt was in Bath, England in 1994. The sky ladder is a ladder made of bamboo and fireworks. The explosions will draw the weight of the ladder up into the sky. In the documentary, we see a ladder toward heaven carved into the side of a church, but rather than heaven in the biblical sense, Cai is thinking about outer space. His “Sky Ladder” was inspired by the NASA space program.
Cai was born in 1957. When he was 11, the Apollo 11 mission landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. That was good news, he recalls, even in China. Yet the moon landing saddened Cai because he realized that he would never go into outer space. His “Sky Ladder” is about creating a ladder into the sky, half a kilometer long, creating a dialogue between earth and outer space.
The Bath project is forced to cancel due to torrential rains. We see Cai scrambling around. He tried again in Shanghai in 2001, but the project is canceled again due to heightened concerns about terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the failed attempt on the Pentagon (American Airlines Flight 77).
In 2012, in Los Angeles was supposed to be the site for the “Sky Ladder” for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). An artist’s rendition shows the ladder of fire going up with the Griffith Observatory and a full moon in the background. But California was in the midst of a drought and Cai’s permits were revoked based on concerns about possible wildfires.
Interspersed between the videos of Cai’s various “Sky Ladder” projects we see Cai in Liuyang which, we’re told, is the fireworks capital of China. Cai is consulting with Ben Youyu, the fireworks consultant for the project. They laugh as they test a rung on the roof top. “In this town we don’t need permission to light fireworks,” Cai says.
Fireworks isn’t the only medium Cai works with. He’s also had works that show his concern for the environment, an alarming problem in modern China. His ‘The Ninth Wave” was inspired by a Russian painting of the same name which shows the final struggle of humanity. Cai’s installation piece is a large ark with animals on it. “Air of Heaven” installation has the figures of three babies on a swing in a forlorn setting devoid of greenery or animals. His “Silent Ink” may remind one of that bubbling crude oil segment in the intro of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but it’s more sinister.
Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations comments “His recent work has a strong environmental subtext” and that Cai has “a deep social conscience.” Yet there’s a link to his past. His grandfather was an intellectual who spent all his money on books. His father, Cai Ruiqin was a famous calligrapher. Ian Buruma, a professor at Bard College, notes that some of his firework pieces are “very calligraphic” and also incorporate an “act of spontaneity.”
Yet Macdonald doesn’t allow us to forget the purges of the Cultural Revolution when “everything that was old had to be smashed.” Cai recalls to his two daughters that he learned his dog had been shot by the Red Guard. The dog wasn’t buried. It was eaten. He explains, “To be able to survive people were happy to eat a dog.”
Cai did survive. He has moved to New York where he now lives. Yet some of his art, some of his most memorable moments, including the “Sky Ladder” are only possible in a place where governmental control requires compromises, but then what becomes of the intention of art? There are questions about Cai and his collaboration with a government that we know has allowed environmental problems to spread and destroy whole villages. It is a government that might regulate thought, but allows potentially dangerous stunts. Cai doesn’t need a permit to explode firecrackers and fireworks on the roof of a city building, but is that wise?
Still this isn’t a politically-minded documentary. When the “Sky Ladder” is finally built and finally realized at Huiyu Island Harbor, Quanzhou, Fujian, (June15, 2015), we’ve learned some touching things about Cai’s family, feng shui and perseverance. There is a feeling of feng shui and fate that permeates throughout. “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang” opens on Oct. 14 for a one week Oscar qualifying run at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 as well as streaming on Netflix. In Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and English with English subtitles.
—Most of this review appeared in the Pasadena Weekly