Cai Guo-Qiang grew up in a setting where explosions were common. Since then, he has channeled his childhood experiences from the Cultural Revolution through his artworks. Whether used for cannon blasts or used for celebratory fireworks, gunpowder can be used in both good ways and bad, “in destruction and reconstruction,” according to Cai Guo-Qiang.
At age 61, Cai Guo-Qiang is now famous for his highly publicized public spectacles that fill the sky with fireworks or colorful smoke. The documentary film Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang was released on Netflix last year and is based on the piece he carried out in secret in a small Chinese fishing village.
Cai Guo-Qiang Tells Story Behind 1,650-Foot Ladder of Fire
In the wee hours of the morning last June 15, a huge white weather balloon filled with 6,200 cubic meters of helium slowly ascended into the sky above Huiyu Island Harbor, Quanzhou, China. Attached to it was a 1,650-foot long ladder created using metal wire and aluminum, rigged completely with quick burning fuses and gold fireworks, which Cai Guo-Qiang then ignited. As the massive sculpture was lit, it created a fiery vision that miraculously ascended to the heavens.
Scroll down for the videos
Sky Ladder burned for approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds above the harbor.
Cai Guo-Qiang first imagined a ladder of fire as a child and has pursued this idea for 21 years. “Behind Sky Ladder lies a clear childhood dream of mine,” said Cai about the work in a press release. “I have always been determined to realize it.”
The Sky Ladder in 2018 was actually his fourth and final attempt to realize the performance.
Elixir of life
Based on a 9th-century Taoist text, the invention of gunpowder by Chinese alchemists was likely an accidental byproduct from experiments seeking to create the elixir of life.
“They were actually looking for an elixir to make themselves immortal,” Cai Guo-Qiang said in the documentary.
This search for immortality is very much alive in his two-decade-long process of making Sky Ladder a reality—immortality not for himself but for his 100-year-old grandmother, to whom the art was dedicated. Cai’s grandmother once saved their living room from ruin when a young Cai accidentally set a canvas on fire in one of his early gunpowder experiments.
“She has been my biggest supporter,” the artist noted. “She used to be very healthy and very strong. She fell when she was 98. After that, her health deteriorated very rapidly.”
Despite the pride Cai Guo-Qiang’s grandmother took in his accomplishments, she had never been able to see one of his explosion events in person.
“This is where I want to make a ladder to connect the Earth to the universe,” said Cai Guo-Qiang in 1994.
Cai Guo-Qiang had earlier attempted Sky Ladder three times: in Bath (1994), Shanghai (2001), and in Los Angeles (2012). Bad weather kept him from attempting the piece in his first attempt. He was similarly stymied in Shanghai in due to post-9/11 security concerns and in Los Angeles because his permit was revoked due to the risk of forest fires. Authorities from Shanghai warned him that “any flying object . . . would be automatically shot down with missiles, with no exceptions.”
After these failed attempts, Cai succeeded in his hometown, making the spectacle even more meaningful. For this fourth and final attempt, Cai Guo-Qiang opted to go ahead without seeking official permission. Carrying no permits, the performance had to be a secret, at the risk of being shut down by the authorities.
“In contrast to my other attempts, which set the ignition time at dusk, this time the ladder rose toward the morning sun, carrying hope,” said Cai. “For me, this not only means a return but also the start of a new journey.”
Cai struggled to finally complete the piece on the remote Huiyu Island Harbor in Fujian. He feared that his grandmother would not live to see the piece performed. In fact, she was ultimately too ill to attend in person, and so she watched the performance via cell phone at home.
“You can go back to sleep now,” Cai told his grandmother afterward.
There were only a couple of hundred people present on the day of the event, but when a video of the June 2015 event was leaked online some months afterward, it was an instant hit. “Within two days there were 30 million views,” Cai said.
Cai has no plans to recreate the technically challenging piece. “I never do the same project twice,” he explained. Besides, he was already overjoyed that something so important to him for so long struck a chord with the public. “I was touched and happy to see so many people could relate to it. It kind of proved the power of artworks,” he said, calling the Sky Ladder “universal.”
“Listen to that sound, full of power and grandeur,” said the artist. “It’s amazing, amazing, amazing.”
There weren’t any repercussions from the unauthorized piece, but just to be sure, Cai took off for Japan afterward.
Cai’s grandmother, sadly, died just a month after Sky Ladder, making his attempt to commune with the unseen world the perfect parting gift for her.