Netflix UK film review: Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
Ivan Radford | On 13, Oct 2016
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Cai Guo-Qiang
Watch Sky Ladder online in the UK: Netflix
“Everyone loves to light fireworks,” says Cai Guo-Qiang. An artist who has made his name through installations involving gunpowder, smoke and things that whizz through the air, he’s not half wrong: setting fire to colourful crackers is one of the most fun things to do, not least because of the magical result.
Director Kevin Macdonald captures that joy and a deeper emotional reaction in Sky Ladder, a documentary about Cai. We see him at work on his increasingly ambitious projects, which rank less alongside traditional paintings and closer to burn art. Watching the preparation that goes into such post-immolation sketches is fascinating, as weights are placed on cardboard and fuses are lit to scorch and steam outlines on canvas.
Over the years, his career has grown naturally to epic stunts such as Transient Rainbow, a suspended bridge of multi-colours over New York, carefully choreographed through microchips that allow fireworks to detonate crucial milliseconds apart. The footage of these endeavours is breathtaking, as Macdonald manages to convey the thrill and stunning scale of seeing them live in person.
But the movie also uncovers the tiny drive behind his grand gestures, tracing the presence of flames in Cai’s life back to his childhood, when the Cultural Revolution saw him having to burn his book-selling father’s texts. It’s a connection that’s delicately drawn, almost as delicately as the documentary raises the question of politics and art in the modern world – a brief conversation about Cai’s work on the 2008 Chinese Olympics opening ceremony is swiftly brushed aside with the point that most artists today work with governments. (Damien Hirst, he notes, designed a stage for the London 2012 ceremony.)
While you leave the 75-minute film wishing more depth was given to such topics, though, let alone the detailed technology used by Cai, that’s to underestimate the power that Cai’s work has in its own right. Unique and beautiful to behold, his career reaches something of a climax with Sky Ladder, a project that isn’t a political gesture at all, but a personal one. The artist has tried three times to achieve his dream of a runged firework climbing from the ground into the sky. It’s only in his home village that he finally has some success; a tellingly intimate environment that gives fresh illumination to the whole endeavour. Everyone loves to light fireworks, but lighting them for the people you love? That’s magical.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.