In the past, we wrote an Artist Spotlight about Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, and a relatively strange installation piece he had created involving tortoises. In today's follow up we're going to look at a specific project that he created, and the Netflix documentary that goes along with it of the same name: Sky Ladder.
Aside from playing around with tortoises, which actually sounds like it might be kind of fun regardless of its relative artistic merit, Cai Guo-Qiang has had an extraordinary career in many other non-traditional media - namely in fireworks, coloured smoke and flame. Tortoises are great and all, but pyrotechnics must be a lot more fun, and Cai Guo-Qiang gained an incredible amount of fame for devising the pyrotechnic displays at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
In 2014, he took his pyrotechnic effects to a new level using coloured smokes and incredibly carefully designed forms and was able to create a stunning range of effects, painting in the sky with smoke and flame. This eventually led to the development of his lifelong project, which has been chronicled in the documentary of the same name.
Produced by Kevin MacDonald and Wendi Deng Murdoch, Sky Ladder tells the story behind his life-long project that took a while to develop into a concept, and even longer into a feasible and performable project. There were many false starts before it was finally properly performed, but the final piece grows into a rather titanic scale that manages to look beautiful too - even though it's a touch more conceptual than the rest of his pyrotechnic work.
As Cai Guo-Qiang explains the project, it sounds like something the world could use more of:
Behind Sky Ladder lies a clear childhood dream of mine. Despite all life’s twists and turns, I have always been determined to realize it. My earlier proposals were either more abstract or ceremonial. Sky Ladder today is tender, and touches my heart deeply: it carries affection for my hometown, my relatives and my friends. In contrast to 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.
Most of us in the art world have heard of Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist slash dissident who's been making headlines with his challenges to the dictatorially smothering cultural atmosphere in the world's most populous nation. But perhaps fewer have heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, however unfairly, since he's equally controversial and has a remarkably distinguished artistic career. Born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China in 1957, he has been living and working in New York City since the mid 1980s, and has a decided penchant for grandiose works of epic scale.
Perhaps inspired by his firsthand experiences of the Cultural Revolution as a teenager, where gunpowder was a common sight and explosions a common sonic backdrop, he experimented early on in his career using gunpowder as an artistic medium, which also earned him his first nods for his multi-part work, Projects for Extraterrestrials. In one especially notable entry in the series that took place at a section of the Great Wall, a stretch of gunpowder six miles long was used to engrave a section of the Gobi Desert with a dragon motif that was a salute to traditional Chinese culture and heritage.
Recently, however, he has begun to become slightly more critical of the current state of affairs in China, specifically with regards to the environmental impacts that the nation has experienced as a result of its rather monumental and incredibly rapid industrial growth over the past 20 years. One of his latest works, titled The Ninth Wave, is being hosted in Shanghai at a gallery named the 'Power Station of Art', and features a moored barge that is populated entirely by taxidermied animals in various poses of sickness and distress. A dig at the Huangpu River's pollution (which grabbed headlines last year over the dumping of 16000 pig carcasses from a farm), the work is intended to raise awareness about the environmental issues associated with industrialisation. Interestingly enough, the Power Station of Art is owned by the Chinese government, and hosts this work despite the fact that it is at least partially critical of the current state of hyperindustrialisation.
Cai has had quite a distinguished career, earning numerous plaudits and awards from various juried competitions, and worked as the Director of Visual and Special Effects at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, a fitting assignment for an artist whose grand scale of work is matched only by his impressive visual flair.