Save for two martial arts films he appeared in as a young man (“The Fall and Spring of a Small Town,” “Real Kung of Shaolin”), the renowned Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has largely avoided the movies. After all he’s been busy, eking out a storied career creating pieces that involve fireworks, gunpowder and, in 2006’s “Head On,” a string of wolves connected from one side of a gallery space to another. In 2008 he contributed the eye-popping fireworks display to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
That changes with “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang,” a documentary about his life pegged to the eponymous piece, in which, on June 15, 2015, rungs rigged with fireworks reaches into the sky while connected to a balloon. Cai had tried four different times to mount the project, in places like Los Angeles and New York, where he’s resided since 1995. He only succeeded when he did in the far-off, remote Huiyu Island in his homeland, with only a few hundred in attendance. Luckily, filmmakers were there to document this beautiful feat.
Cai talks to us from his cavernous studio in the East Village about the ephemeral nature of his work, moving from black gunpowder to colored and how his late grandmother finally got to see one of his pieces live.
Since becoming involved with this documentary, you’ve seen what it’s like to work in the film world. What are some things you noticed about working in this very different, very commercially-driven medium?
When the film first premiered at Sundance, that’s when Netflix became interested in becoming the distributor. They then invested to re-edit the film for it to be better suited to their audience. That’s quite different from making art. You don’t hear of a collector or a museum spending money to edit the artwork they acquired.
Film and video actually seem like they’d compliment some of your work, like “Sky Ladder” or your fireworks pieces. They’re ephemeral by nature, which is to say they occur only once and can reach a larger audience by being documented. In fact, “Sky Ladder” went viral shortly after it happened in 2015, because someone leaked cellphone footage of it on Facebook. What do you think of that?
The clip on Facebook came as a complete surprise. When I made the piece, for my grandmother’s 100th birthday, I was helped by around 400 villagers in Huiyu Island, who participated and watched this artwork. I was expecting no larger than this group as an audience. However, when the shaky cellphone footage leaked on Facebook, within two days, it had over 30 million views. It really showed me how new media provided new possibilities for art.
It’s very different, in terms of presentation, than your piece for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
For the Olympics you had major media partners, like NBC and the Olympic Committee, who spent a long time raising people’s expectations. “Sky Ladder” was a personal project. We didn’t apply for an official government permit; it was done secretly and it happened at the crack of dawn. Popularity on social media gave me a new perspective as an artist — and I’m sure other cultural institutions and practitioners have experience this as well. If you compare the communication of the Olympic Opening Ceremony as pushing a button to light all the city street lamps, the way this piece was leaked was almost like pollen being spread in a garden.