Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang tells the story of one artist’s ambitious creative pursuit to create a 1,650-foot ladder of fire climbing into the skies above his hometown. Director Kevin Macdonald simultaneously offers artistic grandeur with an intimate insight into the life and work of this singularly renowned artist that touches upon the personal, social and political. Yet by offering a commentary on the symbiotic relationship of art and the artist through eloquent and articulate observations it reveals itself as a film of layers with a broad interest outside of simply telling the story of the artist at its centre.

In conversation with Aesthetica, Cai Guo-Qiang and producer Wendi Murdoch reflected on the need for art to discover a sense of belonging within a politicised world, the communication with the unseen through art and Sky Ladder as a universal metaphor.

A: People are shaped by their culture, politics and interpersonal relationships. For the artist or creative individual is it they that shape their world and art, or the world and art that shapes them?
CG-Q: My father practiced Chinese calligraphy and traditional paintings. When I was little he would always like to have me sit on his lap rolling the cigarettes for him because I was pretty good at it. While I was rolling the cigarettes he would paint small matchboxes with landscapes, and on the matchboxes you would see endless mountains and waterfalls, lots of seagulls, boats and huge harbours. So as a little boy I always asked my father: “What are you portraying? Where is it? The answer was always: “Our hometown”, which is just like the place where the Sky Ladder took place, and later on I realised the real hometown is far different to what is portrayed on those matchboxes. The real hometown where the fishing village is, is just a small village with some hills and not those huge mountains, and a small harbour with a few boats.  I then realised my father was portraying his profound love for his hometown and its landscape, which was a very subjective, but  profound love. He’s portraying his heart and so while my father created lots of huge traditional Chinese paintings, what influenced me most was his attitude towards art and his imagination. The biggest influence from my father were the small matchboxes and later I realised that he was using the matchboxes to ignite his gunpowder.

WM: It is amazing this piece wasn’t in the documentary because there was so much footage, and his story is so interesting. We could have made ten documentaries and the big challenge was how to condense the footage into a story with a beautiful narrative. Hopefully this is the window onto Cai’s life and his art, and also onto China. Through watching this film hopefully the audience will want to know more.

 A: In the film Tatsumi Masatoshi says: “There’s no failure or success in art.” Whilst you have faced criticism for projects undertaken for the Chinese government, must the artist not show a willingness to belong to something bigger than their art? Is it necessary for art  to find a way to work in harmony with other entities such as the political?
CG-Q: Indeed, it is a real condition. When we were sitting in that meeting room around the table with the officials, the power that we had was our creativity and our sentiments. In terms of creativity, it was physically our artistic imagination that can touch people. As for our sentiments and affection, it is our affection for the land of this country that is tied to our affection for our hometown and family members. But each person has their own objectives that are slightly different from each other, and each has his own sense of responsibility. But we are all here in this life to face our own problems and to try to find a balance. Those officials were not in an easy position, nor was I in an easy position. It’s easy to talk about confrontation and conflicts, but when we are all sat down figuring it out and trying to make it work, then that’s difficult. I feel the film managed to convey the difficulty and the perseverance of an artist, which is good.

There is a moment in which you observe: “I was searching for an energy, the kind that would disrupt my art.” In my opinion we shouldn’t look at art as something in which a sense of destruction is absent. Perhaps art needs a sense of volatility and Sky Ladder offers a powerful interpretation of art as not a calm, but a tumultuous process?
CG-Q: It manages to capture the time when we are trying to communicate with the unseen world in the art, and this is a conversation that we are always looking to have. But the reality, in the real society, be it from the internet or the biggest changes to China, the changes as a result of our ages, the film managed to engage all of these complicated elements into an integrated whole. It looks like it is a complicated whole, but it’s also a very thin whole because a short cell phone shot of Sky Ladder was uploaded to Facebook, and within two days it attracted over thirty million views on Facebook alone. This tells you that people are not just blown away by complication, but by this simple power abd that they were touched by it.

WM: People can relate to that because each person has their own Sky Ladder. It is a metaphor for life and how difficult it is to achieve something, and the reason why you were successful, then what is the next thing you are you challenging yourself with. Including Cai, you have the next Sky Ladder.

The Incas had the idea that past, present and future are running in parallel, as opposed to our linear perception of time. Art returns us to the Inca perception of the tenses of time running in parallel through the inevitability that the audience and critics are often in pursuit of the artist.
CG-Q: Indeed, and often at times what’s being exhibited in a museum is the result of an artwork. But this film managed to capture the process of an artwork and how it’s related to the past, such is the power of a documentary film. So when I watched the film I could personally feel how lucky I have been to have so many family members accompany me, and the support of friends to realise all of these projects.

WM: Also his art forces you into the present, which we all need to be reminded of. It is human nature to think about the past and to worry about the future. It reminds you to enjoy what’s there today.

CG-Q: And also through collaboration I know more about Wendy as my great friend. Well we have been great friends, but now I know how capable she is – capable to lead the whole team of all those creative minds. Everyone of them was difficult to handle, from director Kevin to Fisher [Stevens]. Each is a creative being and she’s so passionate and persevering.

WM: I love working with creative people… I got involved because I am passionate about art and I love his work. It is something I really believe in, and this film shows the whole world how wonderful his art is and how amazing China is. So it’s a window onto a new world.

Paul Risker

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is available on Netflix from 14 October.

1. Sky Ladder, June 2015. Courtesy of Cai-Studio.