A portrait of Cai Guoqiang and his 'explosion' art

“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guoqiang” is an insight into the work, career and life of the renowned contemporary artist and how he turns gunpowder into art.
Ti Gong

A poster for "Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guoqiang" 

“Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guoqiang,” a highly anticipated documentary on the remarkable artist and his “explosion” art, will be released on September 22.

Directed by Kevin MacDonald, it is the first documentary film on the 60-year-old Cai, one of today’s most prominent contemporary artists. The premiere at this year’s 20th Shanghai International Film Festival drew more than 1,000 people.

Before achieving international recognition, Cai studied stage design at the Shanghai Theater Academy. While living in Japan from 1986 to 1995, he explored the properties of gunpowder in his drawings, which eventually led to his experimentation with explosives on a massive scale and to the development of his signature explosion events.

In 1999, Cai was awarded the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale. In 2001, he became the chief designer of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Cityscape Fireworks in Shanghai. He was also director of visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In 2012, he was honored one of five laureates for the Praemium Imperiale.

The 73-minute film tells the inspirational story of the artist’s career, his spirit and his pursuit of excellence. It took MacDonald two years to take the in-depth look at Cai’s work and life while following him from New York to Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Beijing, and his hometown, Quanzhou, in Fujian Province.

The encouraging story is told through the eyes of Cai’s family, friends, collaborators, art experts and Cai himself.

Some rare footage from the artist’s archives has been used. It is a dazzling journey that culminates his path to becoming known for “lighting fires” all over the world: highlighted by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, his 2008 Guggenheim solo exhibition in New York, the 2013 explosion event “One Night Stand” on the banks of the Seine and the 2014 daytime explosion event “Elegy” in Shanghai, among many others.

The documentary also delves into the harsh realities behind all these spectacular visions, such as the struggles, compromises and vulnerabilities, as well as the artist’s deep and profound feelings toward his home and country. Finally, it shows the hidden aspects inseparable from his art — his love and family ties.

The highlight of the film is the Sky Ladder, a 500-meter ladder of golden flames that hissed and roared their way from the shore of a small fishing village in Quanzhou up into the blue sky and the infinite universe beyond.

It made Cai’s childhood dream of connecting with the stars come true. In June 2015, with help from Chinese technical experts and hundreds of local villagers, Cai dedicated the Sky Ladder as a gift to his one100-year-old grandmother and to his beloved hometown.

Ti Gong

The 500-meter Sky Ladder of golden flames was Cai's gift to his grandmother and his hometown, Quanzhou, in Fujian Province.

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