Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the most reknown chinese artist, is the subject of the documentary by Kevin Mcdonald, Sky Ladder, that will be shown at the Sundance film festival 2016 in the category World Cinema Documentary.
The title of the documentary refers to one of the artist’s most ambitious creations, accomplished last year, a gigantic ladder « into the clouds », of 1,650 feet high rising from his hometown of Quanzhou, China.
The pyrotechnic masterpiece was the result of his maestria of the ancient art of Chinese fireworks, and after having tried years and years in various places, creating an immense scale of metal and fireworks, slowy rising to the sky, was the achievement dream of Cai Guo-Qiang’s lifetime.
Cai Guo-Qiang became internationnnaly known in the early 1990’s for the big strokes not of ink, such as would commend the ancient chinese tradition, but of gunpower.
Transforming violence into ethereal beauty
The work of the artist consists indeed of physical, intellectual and spiritual gesture, such as in calligraphy, but at an awe-inspiring scale, and using a technic invented in China, fireworks.
Pyrographed calligraphy at the artist’s solo exhibition at industrial city of Donetsk, Ukraine.
In China, gun power was used both in good and bad ways, in destruction and reconstruction, that is one of the reasons why explosion is such important in the artist’s work.
Cai’s father having to burn his beloved manuscripts and calligraphy because of the maoist censorship and going into a strange self-exile as a result, has furthermore certainly pushed him to revive this ancient art on a bigger scale.
The heartbreaked artist once said “my father would take sticks and write calligraphy in puddles on the ground” during his exile. “The calligraphy would disappear” when the water evaporated, leaving behind “invisible skeins of sorrow.” Not entirely invisible, one senses the inscribed like calligraphy on his son’s memory.
Humanity and Human scale
But far beyond personal insights, each of his work aims at creating a dialogue between humanity, the earth and beyond, to feel humanity within the universe.
Cai’s philosophy is that humans must exist in harmony with the earth and the cosmic spirits, not separatedly.
His “crop circle” in Germany, modeled on those supposed extraterrestrial “signs” carved in wheat fields—a project that called for 90 kilograms of gunpowder, 1,300 meters of fuses, one seismograph, an electroencephalograph and an electrocardiograph—is a good exemple of this strive to understand the complex relationship between the earthy and extrearthy entities. In this event, two medical devices were there to measure Cai’s physiological and mental reactions as he stood in the center of the explosions, to symbolize the echoes of the birth of the universe, that can still be felt in every molecule of every human cell.
Fetal movement II: project for extraterrestrials n°9, 1992
Indeed, Cai claims not to separate the spiritual and the physical, and that « art can transcend time and space, and achieve something that science cannot. The job of the artiste is to create such time/space tunnels. »
Art critic Yashushi Kurabayashi wrote « An explostion is a magical encounter of two different elements, and a process that encompasses the eternal transformation of matter (…) as an explosion is sometimes compared to the Big Bang (that) forces us to imagine a moment without time and space, an instant before they come into being ». The explosion takes place both in an instant and in eternity.
Later, some of his major projects included, to have extended the Great Wall of China by 10,000 meters: Project for the Extraterrestrials N.10 (1993), and extension of the Great Wall of China, a fiery elongation of the Ming dynasty’s most famous work, designed to be seen from space by aliens, as he wanted to open “a dialogue with the universe” he says. the extension constituted of a detonation of a spectacular six-mile train of explosives.
Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1990
But most people know Cai Guo-Qiang, since 2008, for the worldwide televised “fireworks sculpture” that he created for the opening of the Beijing Olympics. “The explosion event consisted of a series of 29 giant footprint fireworks, one for each Olympiad, over the Beijing skyline, leading to the National Olympic Stadium. The 29 footprints were fired in succession, traveling a total distance of 15 kilometers, or 9.3 miles, within a period of 63 seconds. » as he described it.
Provoking debate in China and international recognition
Over fifteen years he has refined his concept and expand his range of media.
For the 48th Venice Biennale’s prize, Leone d’Oro he won in 1999, Cai recreated the Rent collection Courtyard installation. This originally is a very popular anonymous sculpture from the 60’s. This propagandistic work, a social realist tableau of more than 100 sculptures, depicts the exploitation of feudalism and was meant to contrast with the benefit of the life under Mao Zedong. This recreation in Venice provoked an intense debate in China, some of the artists of the Fine Arts Academy of Chong Qing even have threatened to bring legal actions against Cai for copyright infringement. A teacher in the Academy granted his art as ‘an exemple of postcolonial cultural imperialism in which China is demonized as backward and despotic’.
But in the Cai’s point of view, it is time for the artist to take responsibility for what had happened during the Cultural Revolution. Cai wants to raise issues such as the role that the artists played during this era, and in any strong political setting in general. As he put it « Everyone acted as if they were victims of the times, yet these are the same people that made up those times ».
The artist also wants to « open up the discussion of the Chinese contemporary art » which has roughly had taken two separated ways that have nothing in common with each others.
Internationally, the artist has been awarded of many prizes, such as the Hugo Boss price in 1996, and is highly bought by collectors. In 2007, his canvas Set of 14 drawings for Asia-Pacific economic co-operation attained the record of 9,5 millions de dollars (6,02 millions d’euros). This record for a chinese artist will be, however beaten in 2008 by Masques, séries 1996, no 6 by Zeng Fanzhi.
Venice Rent collection Courtyard, 1999
Cai at Sundance Film Festival
Kevin Macdonald, excited about the cinematic potential of Cai’s works, aims to bring the a very up-close and international look at the work of the Chinese artist, showing all these explosions and sculptures in smoke, in slow motion using drones and multiple cameras. Kevin Macdonald wants to give the public the opportunity to understand more the artist’s lifelong obsession: Sky Ladder, and give an insights of the reasons for this quest.