As a young boy growing up during the
Cultural Revolution, Cai Guo-qiang witnessed the turbulence of the era play out
within his own family. His father was Cai Ruiqin, an accomplished calligrapher
and painter with a vast library of great Chinese literature. His mother was
illiterate and evidently not very happily married. Yet, despite painful memories
of the time, Cai designed the fireworks display that opened the Shanghai APEC
summit meeting. Kevin Macdonald surveys Cai’s life and career while documenting
his most ambitious project yet in Sky
Ladder: the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Growing up in Quanzhou, a traditional
center of Chinese fireworks production, had a formative effect on Cai’s art.
Although he also build fixed installation pieces, he is best known for
literally painting the sky. For years, he has tried to realize his “Sky Ladder,”
an illuminated Jacob’s Ladder reaching into the cosmos inspired by the Apollo
11 moon landing. However, circumstances beyond his control, like weather and
9/11, stymied his past attempts.
In between those very expensive false
starts, Cai accepted some very high profile commissions from the Chinese
government. He and his associates readily defend his work for the Beijing
Olympics, because his original artistic conception remained relatively intact.
However, his former workshop director is openly troubled by his work on the
lavish APEC gala, even though his original plans were almost entirely emasculated
by the Communist government.
Frankly, it is pretty impressive how much
Macdonald pushes him on this issue. The truth is, that reality check needs to
be there, since we have already seen Cai moved to tears when explaining his
father’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, Macdonald
leaves viewers with no illusions regarding the current state of artistic and
intellectual liberty in China.
Still, Cai need not feel neglected,
because Macdonald’s film vividly presents the artist’s often stunning work.
This is one of the few documentaries that would have been suitable for IMAX
treatment. His characteristically ambitious work (sans government interference)
is more than mere fireworks, in some cases involving explosions of colored
dust. You really need to see it to understand the full effect.
Everything is complicated in today’s
China, but the Cai that emerges through Macdonald’s lens really is an artist
who creates art for art’s sake. In all likelihood, there will be little tangible
payoff from realizing the Sky Ladder, yet watching Cai pursue it becomes
surprisingly exhilarating. Altogether, Sky
Ladder: the Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is an unusually complex and intelligent
profiles of one of the most important contemporary artists of our time. Very
highly recommended, it screens again this morning (1/22), Thursday (1/28), and
Friday (1/29) in Park City, and tomorrow (1/23) in Salt Lake, as part of this
Labels: Cai Guo-qiang, Documentary, Sundance '16