Watch It: Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang



Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang challenges the confines of the art world with boundary pushing questions that materialize as blazing temporary art that leave behind seeds of dreaming in waking moments of colorful smoke.  He is best-known to the general public for the spectacular fireworks show during the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.  In the contemporary art world, his explosive works gunpowder works are memorable, as massive gunpowder laced sculptures ignite and flicker as if they were the pulse of his imagination burning free.

On June 15, 2015 Guo-Qiang’s piece, Sky Ladder became the largest single installation ever commissioned.  A huge white balloon filled with 6,200 cubic meters of helium was attached to a 500-meter long ladder coated completely with quick burning fuses and gold fireworks.  As it ascended into the heavens above Huiyu Island Harbor, in Quanzhou, China, it burned brightly into the early morning for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. 

This was Guo-Qiang’s fourth attempt to realize the performance. Previous attempts in Bath (1994), Shanghai (2001), and in Los Angeles (2012), were stymied.

Netflix has released a documentary film detailing Guo-Qiang’s ground breaking artistic efforts to symbolically connect the earth to the universe with Sky Ladder; all captured by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day In September, The Last King Of Scotland).  Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang takes you behind the scenes of the largest single installation ever commissioned. 


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Cai Guo-Qiang likes to ignite things… few will ever forget his majestic display of pyrotechnics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  I was present for his 2009 meditation on the passing of time, Light Passage, a gunpowder series on paper heralded by Fallen Blossoms, the gunpowder fuse shaped like a blossoming flower ignited at sunset outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  His artistic technic is memorable for the impressions that come after the loud bangs, leaving nothing but darkened images that drift off into the wind.   The shadows may phase out, but these outlines of the once existing things create palpable discussions that continue well after his installations have been set off.

Last year, 16,000 dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River in Shanghai last year, due to high levels of air pollution.  This catastrophic event inspired The Ninth Wave which not only questions China’s environmental conditions through more visual fare, but our day-to-day environmental interactions with mother earth on a more global scale.  The installations visual influence is culled from Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1850 painting, also entitled, ‘The Ninth Wave’, which depicts weary survivors helplessly clinging onto debris the night after they were shipwrecked in a storm, with the day breaking depicted in warm tones, it gives the viewer hope that these survivors might just make it.

The Ninth Wave opened with a elegy in his hometown of Shanghai –  eight minutes of multicolored smoke shooting up from the Huangpu River (very same river the pigs were found in) bought attention to an unexpected fishing boat floating down the river replacing Aivazovsky’s survivors with 99 faux animals, all looking sullen and weary.

The discussion continues with other installs built around the theme of social change at Shanghai’s contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art.

Power Station of Art
200 Huayuangang Rd,
Huangpu, Shanghai,

Dig a little deeper with the artist with this Q&A.

Photo credit: Benoit Florencon and the Cai Guo-Qiang website