Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
Other // Unrated // October 14, 2016
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted October 12, 2016
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The world of art has evolved greatly from century to century and culture to culture. Artists all around the world are searching for a recognizable signature style that will make them stick out from the rest. Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese-born artist, who has certainly found how to make his mark on the world. Gunpowder is often his medium and the sky has become known as his canvas. He has obtained international success over the years, which is now reviewed in a documentary being released by Netflix.

Following the life of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang, this documentary begins by exploring his childhood in China. A wide array of interviews with family, friends, art critics, and others chronicle the artist's endeavors over the years to adulthood. This all leads up to his pursuit of his lifelong obsession of completing the Sky Ladder, as many obstacles have stood in his way over the years.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang makes its introduction with Cai's search for the perfect type of firework to be used to create this mystical ladder from the land into the sky. This project has failed several times due to permits and security increases due to 9/11, but this time he believes that he'll finally be able to achieve his dream project. In discussions with his family and interviews with art critics, we're told his story. Even those who already know of Cai's work may learn a few things about the man behind the art that many have enjoyed over the years. However, much of it feels summarized, as the film holds most of its focus on the development of the Sky Ladder, rather than on the journey of his life. The audience is given enough knowledge to place some meaning behind the project to make it feel like a bigger victory for Cai.

The film explores the political climate of the various places that Cai has lived, and how they impacted his work. We're treated to absolutely breath-taking footage of a firework performance in Paris called One Night Stand, which is a real treat for the eyes. However, his work is more complex than just lights in the sky, as he often incorporates stories and messages within them. This all leads to the Sky Ladder, which is supposed to be his way of connecting the earth to the heavens. With his grandmother being one-hundred years old, he feels that he needs to achieve this goal before her passing. Director Kevin MacDonald does wonders in making a mission feel much more urgent than in most other documentaries. However, its incredibly short running time of 76 minutes doesn't allow it to do the same for Cai's personal journey. While it's briefly touched upon, it feels like an opportunity was missed to explore more of his inspiration behind the Sky Ladder, which is only slightly dissected.

This is a compact documentary that works quite well as an introduction to Cai Guo-Qiang and his work. However, those who are looking for an in-depth look at the man and his work will have to look elsewhere. This is largely a surface view that spends much of its time chronicling the events leading up to the Sky Ladder's creation, rather than truly diving into who this artist is as a human being. Nevertheless, this serves as an enjoyable documentary with absolutely awe-inspiring footage of his various works. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang may not stick with you for long, but it makes for an enjoyable 76 minutes. Recommended.



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