In 2015, after close to 20 years of unsuccessfully attempting an arduous feat in different parts of the world, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang finally realised his life’s dream in a fishing village similar to one where he grew up. His “sky ladder”, an ascending stack of fireworks held together by a hot air balloon, is the resounding culmination of an eclectic talent that has sprawled various mediums.
As the child of the Cultural Revolution and the son of a calligrapher, Cai was introduced to the world of art and its uneasy relationship with politics at a young age. Like many others of his generation, his father was forced to give up his art in a purge that fundamentally redefined Chinese society. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, traces his journey from a diffident young man to one of the most exciting Chinese artists working today. The film is available for viewing on Netflix.
The documentary also narrates the larger story of China in the 20th century through the eyes of one man. Cai came of age in the post-Mao era, a time of new opportunities and greater economic freedom for the Chinese middle class. But with the Communist Party maintaining an iron grip on the affairs of the state, the promise of artistic freedom was never fully realised.
Against this backdrop, Cai made a name for himself as a sculptor and painter, earning prestige in the West with displays that are lovingly showcased in the film. One, of stuffed wolves fiendishly attacking one another in an arc that rises from the ground, makes for a stunning sight. Titled “Head On”, it travelled the world in 2006, by which time Cai had made a home in New York City.
But it was his introduction to gunpowder that was to transform Cai’s art and make him an international celebrity. The film follows him as he mounts extraordinary pyrotechnics, culminating in the “Ninth Wave” in Shanghai in 2014. A five-minute montage of sheer splendour that has Cai turning the sky into a diffuse rainbow, “Ninth Wonder” used environmentally safe fireworks – a lesson we in India need to urgently imbibe if we are to protect our cities from the ruinous post-Diwali smog.
In spite of his international stature, Cai’s interactions with the Chinese government have been mixed. While he was lauded for the firework display he organised at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was told to tone down the storytelling he had in mind for the 2014 APEC leaders’ summit. In a telling scene, a Communist Party official reprimands Cai for going beyond the remit given him for the summit: to put up an “entertaining” show. Macdonald both examines the artist’s role in the face of competing popular tastes and questions Cai’s willingness to continue to work in such a setup.
Away from prying eyes and the omnipresent state, however, Cai managed to undertake a personal project that also turned out to be his most magnificent. As his grandmother turned 100, he invited her to a ceremony in which months of hard work resulted in a burning stairway to heaven, an artistic and human triumph that goes beyond all politics and repression.