Cai Guo-Qiang, the renowned Chinese fireworks artisan, feeds his staff five-course lunches daily at his studio. His demeanor is consistently serene and modest, even when coping with government censorship or failed projects (in fact, he welcomes failure as a learning tool). He’s a true-blue family man, a kidder, prone to horseplay.
You’d expect more self-aggrandizement and preciousness from a high-concept, obsessively meticulous visual artist who grew up amid the rise of Chairman Mao, honed his skills during the notably rebellious early post-Mao years, and now yearns for his art experiments to “connect Earth with outer space.” But despite the devil-may-care danger of his craft, there’s not an ounce of boastfulness in Cai.
In Kevin Macdonald’s arresting, snappily paced tribute Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, each of the artist’s explosive showcases is hypnotically beautiful to behold — which is especially impressive given how boring it is to watch most recorded fireworks displays. In one exhibit, firecrackers race around an oval track and then rise, culminating in bird-shaped cloudbursts; in another, streams of light dance above copulating couples, silhouetted against a line of docked boats. And, at a private beachside ceremony seen by precious few, Cai achieves his 21-year vision: Sparklers that have been tethered to a hot-air balloon gradually form an eerily symmetrical ladder of fire.
But the most lasting impression in Sky Ladder is of Cai’s undaunted gentleness. He may be an international superstar, but the person he most wants in attendance at his magnum opus is his ailing grandmother. The film, in the end, is a celebration of a humble artist who easily could have been — and perhaps deserves to be — a megalomaniac.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Opens October 14, IFC Center
Available on Netflix October 14