Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Do you want to watch a documentary about the man behind the most astounding fireworks displays in the world? Of course you do. Who doesn’t love a good fireworks show, other than dogs and babies? That everyone loves a good fireworks show is both a boon and a burden to Cai Guo-Qiang’s art, as learn in the Sundance-premiering documentary about his work and life, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.

The film is a fairly standard biographical documentary about an artist. It details Cai’s life through interviews with his family and photographs, and it juxtaposes this history with the art he has produced over his life. The film draws parallels between Cai’s past and his art, suggesting visually that he is working out his past through his art-making. One of the most explicit parallels occurs when the film details Cai’s conflict-ridden home life and then shows an installation Cai designed in Germany in which a home is exploded from the inside by firecrackers. That’s a bit of a bludgeon of a metaphor, but then the film dissolves from the model home with smoke rising in a plume above it to a shot of a pagoda in Cai’s hometown, suggesting rather gracefully that Cai’s art is a way of transforming conflict into something more transcendent. This is the film in its best moment.

The “Sky Ladder” of the film’s title refers to a life-long dream project Cai is set on completing. He hopes to build a fiery ladder to the heavens so that heaven and earth can communicate with each other. This is a beautifully conceived, deeply spiritual impulse, spoken directly by Cai to the camera, but the film doesn’t investigate this spiritual side of Cai’s life. Like a first-year psychology student, the film simply chalks up all Cai’s impulses to his upbringing.

Other compelling questions are presented and then left hanging as well. The film states that Cai’s global fame is a hindrance to his continued development as an artist, but it never explores the nuances of his conflict in Cai’s life. The film includes a lengthy sequence detailing Cai’s complicated relationship with the strict Chinese government—Cai’s most famous installation is undoubtedly his work for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies—but again, it only states the conflict and never delves into how Cai feels about this or how he thinks he might be able to work around or with the Chinese government in the future. In all, the film “reads” like a list of topics that would be interesting to explore in a film willing to commit itself to any of them.

Fortunately, Cai’s explosive art speaks for itself, and the film is full of footage of Cai’s process and products. It is easy to see how Cai’s early-career art is more vital and urgent than his latter work. Much of his “famous period” work is merely pretty. It doesn’t transcend the moment and become evocatively beautiful. Cai himself clearly laments this. 

Art-making, at its heart, is a kind of striving – to express something, to question something, to challenge or explore something. When an artist becomes as financially successful, established, and popular as Cai Quo-Qiang, the need to strive is diminished. She or he must find some other desire to drive them. The Christian artist should always feel that drive, as we are caught between “the already and the not yet.” We are always pushing toward the final reconciliation of all things, campaigning against sin and its effects, and confessing the hope we have in Christ. Our striving is not for worldly riches. If they come, we are to turn them back to God, recognizing they are not ours but only our charge to put toward God’s ends. We are always to be poor in spirit and so to inherit the earth.

In my favorite scene in the film, Cai visits an “unknown artist” who sculpts out of grief over his deceased wife. The man is living in poverty surrounded by his tiny statues. Cai seems to long for a return to this kind of work that is necessary for the artist even if no one knows it exists. Cai’s Sky Ladder, if ever he can successfully complete it, will be this kind of work for him, the first such work in many years. Even with all his success, Cai is clearly still driven by something, but the film about him doesn’t take the time to find out what that something is.