CYNICISM AT THE CINEMA: ‘Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang’ – touching story brings light to art made by fireworks

(Photo used by permission of YouTube)
Cai Guo-Qiang’s fire ladder is successfully completed.

Movie aficionado sophomore Chardonnay Needler reviews films biweekly in “Cynicism at the Cinema.”

A ladder stretching up to the heavens.

That is Cai Guo-Qiang’s lifelong dream.

And after four attempts over the course of 21 years, his dream and promise to his ailing grandmother – Sky Ladder – was realized.

This documentary, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang,” is a brief story of that dream.

Early in the film, Cai meets up with one of his colleagues to discuss the fireworks ladder. He describes his vision of a unifying ladder between the sky and the people.

It’s a beautiful image.

Spoken in his very down-to-earth Hokkien-accented Mandarin, his message, accompanied by images of his previous projects, is nothing short of touching.

“But this ladder wouldn’t be so I could be free and reach space,” Cai said.

“It would be to encourage a back-and-forth, a dialogue.”

For almost three decades this man has been spreading his light throughout the world, painting pictures of the Earth that represent his struggles, joys and triumphs.

His medium: exploding gunpowder and biodegradable colors.

Sometimes his works take hours to set up before they flicker and fade out after mere seconds.

I’m not an artist, but I can appreciate the immense amount of thought that goes behind these projects to prove a point to the world.

The cinematography is stunning from the beginning.

The opening shots (gunpowder and simple workers in firework factories) accompanied by Cai’s narration of the ancient legends behind fireworks set the tone perfectly for this story about culture, history and art.

The first 30 minutes or so serve as an introduction to Cai, whom I deemed a sort of modern-day Chinese Renaissance man, and his works.

One breathtaking moment (which you can see at the beginning of the trailer) is footage from his “Ninth Wave,” a Shanghai exhibition made of fireworks and environmentally friendly powder art that he created to raise awareness of China’s – and the world’s – effects on the environment.

Through the clips of his collaborations on both this project and others, Cai becomes instantly likeable; he’s a humble yet intelligent man, multilingual, multicultural and multifaceted.

The audience sees Cai at his wildest: as a young man with his wife, both in their twenties, and as a man who just loved experimenting with pyrotechnic art.

The viewer is introduced to more of his artistic ideas, including his firecracker chance paintings: artwork formed by the random explosion of firecrackers underneath wooden boards and paper, or what I like to call the pyrotechnic Jackson Pollocks.

But around the middle of the movie, the tone changes, and new shades of Cai are seen.

The film does not follow Cai’s life in chronological order, but touches here on his childhood and parents.

Here, among the clips and photos of Cai’s upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, is when it becomes more of an art history documentary, as scholars and Cai himself dissect all the pieces that led to his modern-day creations’ uniqueness.

(Photo used by permission of Creative Commons)
Cai Guo-Qiang’s fireworks display at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

This is where the Communist Party’s aims to squelch culture and art are first noted, but it’s not the last time.

His father practiced ancient Chinese calligraphy but during the Revolution had his art and supplies burned.

Later in the movie, when Cai is asked by the Chinese government to create a fireworks display for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the Communist Party’s restrictive regime rears its head again, this time forcing him to do something he does not want to do for the opening ceremony.

One of many themes is the conflict between his passions (mainly the Sky Ladder) and his rise to stardom. The more famous he became, the more he could feel that his own ethos was slipping away from his art.

And that’s when the film reconnects with the ladder.

After attempts in big cities, Cai decides to do his fourth try in his hometown, QuanZhou.

Time is of the essence as his then almost 100-year-old grandmother has rapidly deteriorated, and he must fulfill his promise to give her the gift of seeing this ladder as a present before she dies.

So at the end of an emotional journey set back by 9/11, weather problems and censorious government officials, Cai finally fulfills his dream.

“Sky Ladder today is tender, and touches my heart deeply: it carries affection for my hometown, my relatives and my friend,” Cai says as footage of the illuminated ladder is shown.

“In contrast (with) my other attempts, which set the ignition time at dusk, this time the ladder rose toward the morning sun, carrying hope. For me, this not only means a return but also the start of a new journey.”

Part of me hopes he’ll come up with another Sky Ladder-like project just so I can see another thrilling documentary of this man.

By Chardonnay Needler

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