Any documentary about an artist needs to show you his or her work and make you appreciate their craft, even if you don’t have a taste for what they do. That’s the minimum of expectation for a film like Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, which focuses attention on the Chinese visionary of the title. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), it’s a fine introduction to its subject, maybe a tad bit insufficient for such a prolific artist, yet that’s ultimately not its purpose.
Much of Cai’s biographical and career points provide context for the viewer unfamiliar with him, but much of it is barely relevant to the central story of his attempt to finally achieve a project he’s been trying to make happen for 20 years: Sky Ladder. The installation event, which briefly lit up Quanzhou harbor one night last summer, was done in secret and consisted of a fiery ladder reaching up to the heavens, a symbol of peace and hope in the form of a bridge to the cosmos.
Cai has quite a diverse portfolio, but especially following his participation in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, his pyrotechnic installations are probably his most notable series of works on the international art circuit. These awesome spectacles are to common fireworks displays what a Chinese action film like Hero is to a Michael Bay movie (fittingly, Hero director Zhang Yimou makes an appearance in the doc). They’re beautiful and entertaining. They’re also difficult to properly convey by any visual means, as necessary as it is to record them for posterity. Macdonald gives us a better look at Sky Ladder than many of the clips he includes of past installations done around the world. Still, no documentary is going to completely capture what it’s like to see it in person. That’s not its true purpose, either.
Sky Ladder wasn’t just a passion project, although it represents Cai’s dreams of going to space from his childhood. It was primarily for and in honor of his 100-year-old grandmother. A demonstration for the woman who saw her son and then grandson struggle in different ways as artists in a nation that doesn’t allow for a lot of creative freedom. Of course, the bedridden woman couldn’t be there in person, either, watching instead on an iPad via FaceTime. The sentiment is the point.
As for those who were present, Sky Ladder was also the rare project Cai got to do for the people in his home country and province that wasn’t for or compromised by the government. The event wasn’t promoted, but it could be seen from anywhere around the city. Subtly and concisely, the film is about the artist wanting to create art that is expressive on his end and enjoyable to others, and his love for his country if not government is portrayed as a complicated matter for a man constantly asked, with certain judgment being made, why he regularly returns to China to work on projects for and with the state.
Few documentaries about an artist need to make you appreciate the person. This one does. It’s an endearing portrait of someone with a lot of integrity and humanity. He recognizes and represents the good in China, the people. While based in New York for the last 20 years, he’s got a lot national and cultural pride, it just so happens that his origins are in a controversial place, and this is a return to roots for an artist who has amassed a lot of fame and fortune by leaving. His medium, too, involves complexity from the start, as the Chinese invention of gunpowder is synonymous with both illumination and violence.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang would make for a great double feature with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a documentary about an artist who’s more of a firecracker himself and who deals with the Chinese government in far less cooperative ways while still being just as much an artist as representative of his nation (where he resides) and its culture. Sky Ladder isn’t as cool a film but it’s more touching and just as much of a treasure for fans of art and nonfiction stories.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2016.