Movie Review: ‘SKY LADDER: THE ART OF CAI GUO-QIANG’ – Ooh Baby You’re A Firework


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Directed by:Kevin Macdonald

If you’ve ever been obsessive about your career then you’ll empathize with the artist spotlit in SKY LADDER: THE ART OF CAI GUO-QIANG. Director Kevin Macdonald’s documentary chronicles Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s latest ambitious passion project, a 1,650 foot fireworks-shooting ladder that reaches from his hometown to the heavens above. As we delve deep into the years-long challenges he’s faced bringing this creation to fruition, we also learn about the history of his culture and how his previous works have affected people globally. It’s a fascinating look at an artist’s creation process – one bound to resonate with the masses. If you’re into art, or simply just have a mild appreciation of it, this is the documentary for you.

Cai is a man who comes from two communities – China and the art world. And, after decades of acclaim, he’s still negotiating the balance between the two, which can sometimes be a tightrope walk. It’s a task for him finding the sweet spot between getting funding for his Chinese-based installations and having the creative freedom he needs to execute his art (which tends to be a subtext-laden critique of the government). We see it when he meets with a special committee for APEC, who approve and disapprove elements in his planned display. His compromises can also lead to bland art – propaganda, as his critics hollered at the Chinese Olympics.

Sky LadderWhile it’s not nearly as difficult with his installations in other countries, they all present their own unique set of challenges (like permit approval in a wildfire-prone area). It’s fun to glimpse him and his consultant working out these problems. What’s most inspiring is that, for the most part, he’s able to turn his dreams into a reality. It’s a profound experience, which we see in the footage from his prior exhibitions (like when he destroys a small house with fireworks, or shoots biodegradable color fireworks from a barge).

Macdonald shows us a fairly well-rounded portrait of a genius mind at work. He also brings up a few fascinating questions: where’s the line between passion and obsession? What happens when art is forced to compromise? There’s also an understated warning to other artists watching who may be sacrificing their clear-eyed vision for funding. Studios who are doing this now to nab a Chinese monetary infusion may wanna pay attention, as their filmmakers are also being put in a precarious position.

Though this may not dazzle for all audiences on the same level as one of Cai’s grand fireworks displays, and the effect may fade just as fast, it’s enough to light a spark.

SKY LADDER: THE ART OF CAI GUO-QIANG is now streaming on Netflix.

Photo credit: Sky Ladder scheduled to stream on Netflix. Shown: Remembrance, chapter two of Elegy: Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave, realized on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, August 8, 2014. Photo: Lin Yi, Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix ©

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.