By James Barraford
“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang” is a lean Netflix documentary clocking in at an hour and 16 minutes. For anyone interested in the art scene, this is a must see.
After several failed attempts, artist Guo-qiang, is intent on creating a fiery ladder that reaches toward the heavens. Instead of doing it in a major city, like his previous attempts, he is doing it in his hometown of Quanzhou for his 100-year-old grandmother – under the nose of the Communist Party.
Even with the film’s relatively short run time, we get an intimate look at the life and aspirations of Cai Guo-qiang. The director, Kevin McDonald, succeeds in giving fair treatment of an artist whose life was formed from the repercussions of the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Throughout the film, we see his primary form of artistry with firework displays merged with other media to create something breathtaking and transient. The depiction of the “Ninth Wave” at the beginning of the film is ethereal. Fireworks ascend and explode, creating flickering dark streaks that culminate in a hellish orange mushroom cloud.
“Head On” shows a pack of wolves, suspended from a ceiling, falling over an invisible ledge to their demise. Will humans’ insatiable predation of the environment lead to the same lemming-like fall over the precipice?
The music that accompanies these displays compliments the depth of Guo-qiang’s goal. Electronic soundscapes create haunting, apocalyptic, or celebratory visions.
Guo-qiang’s life is shown fairly and honestly. Unlike other celebrity documentaries, which look more like self-produced advertisements, Guo-qiang allows his struggle of individual artistry and the state to be aired.
This film is definitely not an advertisement. Professors, art critics, and former employees of Guo-qiang do not hold back leveling criticism against him.
The former director of Cai Studios, Jennifer Wen Ma, described how his work with the Chinese government often starts with a strong message and eventually devolves into a commercial spectacle with no substance.
Art critics such as Ben Davis acknowledged the shadier side of his dealings with the Communist Party. It cannot be ignored that his work for the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics displaced 1.5 million people and tightened already invasive surveillance.
Yet this is precisely what makes the film so engaging. It shows a man, who came from naught, and created his own multi-million-dollar enterprise. Even with the success and broad social messages, there is the reality of the system of which he is forced to participate in.
Guo-qiang, despite this issue, is a humble and unassuming man. Whenever he speaks into the camera it is as if you can see his aura glowing through the screen.
Guo-qiang states the intention of his work is to create a bridge between East and West. What he intuits artistically the audience can feel.
The explosions, which often incorporate dyes and state-of-the-art timing systems, intuit the chaos and order of two mega-powers. You can feel the wholeness of intentions, bringing dynamism in order to heal a divide.
I think it is also important for students to watch this film. It is vital, in times of turbulence, not to allow ideology to supersede pragmatism, regardless of the polarity.
My only issue with the film has to do with how quickly it covers Guo-qiang’s misstep with Communist government. It could have gone further into the dealings and in some ways felt a little too veneer.
Yet with the conclusion of the film we see Guo-qiang undermining the Communist authority that has given him millions of dollars. With an enormous balloon, the ladder floats into the sky over the city of Quanzhou, as dawn makes its approach.
Whether you are an art connoisseur or just looking to spend some down time watching a movie, this film is not only educational – it’s also entertaining and engrossing.
“Sky Ladder” is entertaining and opens the mind.