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Reaching for The Sky: Netflix’s Documentary on Cai Guo-Qiang

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Today, Netflix will be releasing its documentary focusing on Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-QiangSky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.

Produced by Wendi Murdoch and Fisher Stevens, and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Kevin MacdonaldSky Ladder is the first feature-length documentary about the artist.

Sky Ladder scheduled to stream on Netflix. Shown: The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16, realized at Hiroshima Central Park near the A-Bomb Dome, October 1, 1994. Photo: Kunio Oshima, Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix ©

The inspiring and poignant film offers a beautiful portrait of Cai’s practice and work, highlighting his most acclaimed exhibitions and projects around the world, his travels, and experiences abroad, as well as an unprecedented look on his personal life and creative process.

Whitewall spoke with Cai after attending the documentary‘s press preview last week in New York.

Cai Guo-Qiang

WHITEWALL: Your signature material is gunpowder. What is the biggest challenge in working with that material?  Are you sometimes surprised or disappointed about the outcome of some of your firework or canvas pieces?

CAI GUO-QIANG: The biggest challenge is not that gunpowder is dangerous, but whether I can use it to create art that is truly interesting, independent from the fact that it is made with an unusual material. To me, this is the biggest difficulty and risk in working with gunpowder.

Cai Guo-Qiang

When a drawing turns out less than ideal, it is usually because I either applied too much or too little gunpowder. However, applying the “wrong” amount usually results in nice surprises, so there’s an inherent paradox. Sometimes a work surprises me so much that it intimidates me, and I can’t believe it is me who created it. Those are moments I feel connected with a higher spirit, or aided by a greater force.

WW: Do you think the Chinese political and cultural climate during the late ’80s, as well as your relationship with your father and his work as a painter and calligrapher, influenced your choice of gunpowder as a work material?

Cai Guo-Qiang

CGQ: My father was a traditional painter and calligrapher. Like him, I tend to be overly rational and cautious, which, while good qualities to have in general, can restrain an artist. While aware of this, I looked for a material that could destroy my timid tendencies.

During the ’80s, China was starting to open up to the global economy. As new ideas and philosophies were introduced, they collided with prevailing traditional values and made the old social climate feel unbearably oppressive. As I searched for means to liberate myself with art, and to help improve the openness of society with art, gunpowder became a natural choice of material.

Cai Guo-Qiang

WW: How do you keep up with advances in technology and how does it pair up with your quest for environmental friendliness? 

CGQ: Some creative concepts require forms to be realized. Traditional fireworks explode from the center and expand outward in radius forms like chrysanthemums; as a result, every “flower” looks the same. So when I needed to create different forms–for example, to write words in the sky, or paint a pyramid—I needed each shell to go to their pre-assigned positions in precise formations, and ignite at designated times. For this purpose, shells imbedded with computer chips were first developed in 2002 for me to realize Transient Rainbow over the East River in New York. In fact, these imbedded computer chips are inspired by the same technology used in precision-guided munitions. This new technology not only has scientific and artistic significance, but also an environmental one. Traditional firework displays rely on quantity and duration to impress the audience, causing unnecessary waste. Because of the precision the computer-chip-imbedded shells are able to achieve, the amount of fireworks needed is significantly reduced. Not to mention that too much smoke would obstruct the forms.

Cai Guo-Qiang

WW: One of the main characteristics of your big scale projects, such as your Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (1993) in the Gobi Desert or Sky Ladder itself is the involvement of local populations (better to use “communities”). How do you think collaborating with you impact their lives and is it part of your global message? 

CGQ: I think art and artists are both finite. When an artist spends time with different people, and is nourished with the experience of different places, he may then approach infinitude. I hope to be like a seed, able to blossom different flowers in different soil. The people I work with in different places each carry part of their culture, and I learn from them. Big metropolitan cities (Bath, Los Angeles, Shanghai) didn’t give birth to Sky Ladder, but when I placed myself in a small fishing village in my hometown, the few hundred villagers understood the local climate so well they were able to tell me at what hours of the day the wind and tide would be completely still; I knew to trust them and ignite the ladder during that narrow window. Plus the entire village went and prayed for me in the local temples. It really became everybody’s art, everybody’s responsibility. In addition to helping me realize the work, they also created their own memories, pride, and faith. I often think about the children in the village who saw Sky Ladder, they must have felt what I felt as a little boy seeing wonders that continued to influence me and my art over the years…

Cai Guo-Qiang

WW: Have you noticed any changes in the individuals or communities you worked with since your collaboration?

CGQ: Ever since the ’80s I have been collaborating with local communities in Iwaki, Fukushima. I have exhibited in their local museum, and later brought the artwork and my local collaborators to museums all over the world. After the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, I hurried to send my contribution to help re-build their hometown. To my surprise, they told me they wanted to use the donation to plant 10,000 cherry blossom trees, in order to turn the nuclear radiation polluted areas into an ocean of pink blossom when viewed from the sky. This brought back memories of my concept when I collaborated with them in 1994 to create my Project for Extraterrestrials No. 14: The Horizon from the Pan-Pacific, which aimed to allow us to see the edge of our planet. When I heard their idea, aside from being moved by their love for their homeland, I knew that I’d done something that had an effect on the local creative energy.

Cai Guo-Qiang

WW: In the documentary, you mention your passion for collaborating with lesser-known artists. What do you usually expect from such interactions and how do they impact your own work? Can you tell us more about a recent such collaboration?

CGQ: In 2004, I embarked on a project that led me to travel across China to meet peasant inventors and collect their inventions, which eventually led me to curate these as Peasant da Vincis. The exhibition first opened in 2010 in Shanghai during the Shanghai World Expo. Echoing the slogan of the World Expo “Better City – Better Life,” I invented “Peasants – Making a Better City a Better Life” as a creative catchphrase, highlighting the contribution and sacrifice of peasants for our modern cities.

More recently, I included a peasant artist Hu Zhijun’s unfired clay sculptures in an exhibition I curated on contemporary Chinese art. Like the aircraft carriers and flying machines invented by the peasant inventors, Hu’s sculptures ask us to return to the beginning: why we make art, why human beings have the urge to create.

WW: You have collaborated with the Chinese government in the past, notably orchestrating the Beijing Olympics Ceremony and the 2001 APEC cityscape fireworks. Your response to critics was that it is easier to advocate for change from the inside. Do you still believe that this is the best way of creating change? What are some of the changes you would like to accomplish?

CGQ: There is more than one way to contribute to change. Many Chinese intellectuals, although dissatisfied with the current realities, have not given up on change. They are doing whatever they can to help their society become healthier and more open. I am one of them, and by comparison, what I do is nothing too special.

I trust that when the majority of Chinese citizens, including government officials, accept and respect individual creativity, voice, and value, and when everybody can voice their own opinions – this will be a slow process – that’s when changes in society will happen.

WW: You managed to achieve a very challenging life-long goal and personal dream with Sky Ladder. How did you feel when you saw the ladder burning in the sky? What is your next dream?

CGQ: It was a very emotional moment for me, seeing that 500 meters was indeed very tall, and that 5.5 meters was indeed very wide! As the ladder ascended into the sky, spewing golden flames with a majestic whispering sound for 80 seconds, I felt a moment of being connected with greater forces in nature. The piece started to take on a life of its own, independent from my creation. I was also grateful to be able to dedicate the work to my grandmother, my family and hometown.

Sky Ladder is connected with a lot of my other works; through them I attempt to dialogue with the unseen worlds. Of course I will continue to create large-scale explosion events like Sky Ladder; but with smaller works, such as gunpowder paintings, I am also building ladders: ladders that connect to my childhood dreams of becoming a painter and conversing with masters in art history.





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Kelly Wearstler




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