The art of Cai Guo-qiang is like a moment in time. A drop of creativity in the pool of conventionalism. Kevin MacDonald’s Sky Ladder explores the artistic process behind his work, the origins of his illustrious career, and the shackles of patriotic ‘collaboration’.
From humble beginnings in Zhangou, the historic origin of fireworks, Guo-qiang’s father, Cai Ruiqin, was a highly respected calligrapher. A craft allowing for little personal expression, he found solace in books, regularly spending entire weekly salaries acquiring them to the detriment of his family. ‘It’s my fortune’ he told his son, ‘and one day that will be yours, too’.
Sadly, that wasn’t to be, as a drastic new ideology was sweeping through China. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution cleansed society of so-called bourgeois elements bleaching huge periods in history, paralysing the country politically and economically. A dangerous time for classical artists and musicians, Ruiqin was forced to burn his extensive collection of books and in turn watched his son’s future reduced to ash.
And it is from those very ashes that a phoenix rises, one symbolising the flourishing of art and culture through the 1980s, the true Cultural Revolution. A time for experimentation, to push the limits of what is possible. For Guo-qiang, this was gunpowder. To essentially destroy a classical portrait through controlled detonation and call it art, to call that moment art, was simply unheard of, yet his work established a niche in the contemporary art community launching him on a trajectory to international fame.
Little by little, a shift towards a capitalistic government is becoming evident. One that takes art in it’s purist form, strips away the passion and replaces it with fanfare and melodrama. There is no greater example in Guo-qiang’s life than his 2001 APEC Conference firework show. It was conceived as a cacophony of sight and sound, coupled with suggestive themes, his trademark. With potentially the most symbolic scene following, a meeting with government officials, we watch as an increasingly desperate Guo-qiang clings to his ideas with every aspect deemed against agenda. ‘The government is here to help you’ he’s told, ‘you just have to figure out something creative with all these chains on you’. Prevented from abandoning the project from latent patriotism, the resulting soulless display is a tragedy, both for himself and, through MacDonald’s candid filmmaking, the viewer.
When an artists achieves high popularity, the likes of Damien Hirst for example, they become a brand, a large cog in the capitalist machine – often losing sight of their original cause. This issue is presented matter-of-factly, illustrating MacDonald’s disdain for the current art environment. To avoid this fate, Guo-qiang works with the unknown. Those who create for passion and self-fulfilment, the foundations of greatness. His long-awaited dream, to connected Earth to the Universe through a ‘Sky Ladder’, has wrestled with the requirement of investment. A costly venture that has suffered multiple cancellations over two decades (due to issues with weather, and an unfortunate increase in security following 9/11 terror attacks), he plans one final attempt. This time not for the eyes of the world however, but for family and friends, especially dedicated to his almost 100 year old grandmother. The affair is a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by Chinese virtuosi, with work completed in secret to avoid interference from the government. After more delays due to bad weather, Guo-qiang seizes his opportunity and what follows is simply joyous, a euphoric spectacle as dream becomes reality. His masterpiece, realised.
Sky Ladder is akin to peering through the keyhole. A brief glimpse into an ordinary man with truly extraordinary ambitions. Driven not by money, but by an incessant need to provoke discussion, instil a sense of wonder and most of all, to make his family proud. An event almost lost to the ages, MacDonald’s documentary is an astonishing extension of Guo-qiang’s art, a profound experience and an honour to watch.