How Cai Guo-Qiang Literally Lit the Art World on Fire

A new documentary probes the life of the Chinese artist whose medium is explosions.

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Oct 15 2016, 1:20pm

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang makes ebullient art, awesome in the traditional meaning of the word. In the past, he's "extended" the Great Wall of China to the Gobi desert with a six-mile-long gunpowder fuse he ignited, created paintings through explosions, and orchestrated the spectacular fireworks display during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He also won the Golden Lion Prize at the 48th Venice Biennale, arguably the top honor in the art world. In a new documentary, out now on Netflix, viewers are offered vantage into the life of the man behind the match.

Director Kevin Macdonald's Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang takes an engrossing and informative look at the work of Guo-Qiang over the last few years. The film starts with the display the artist conducted at the economic conference APEC China in 2014, before following him as he attempts to complete Sky Ladder, a site-specific project he'd failed to realize three times in the past, which involves the construction of a 1,650-foot ladder that reaches into the sky before it's ignited, leaving a glowing image of a path to the heavens.

Macdonald puts the artist's work in context, making the argument that his practice with gunpowder is analogous to cultural revolution because his art is born from an explosion that destroys what has come before. He also hints at the battle between the funding of Guo-Qiang's work and maintaining artistic integrity, but ultimately his film is a touching and affectionate portrait of one of the world's great pyrotechnics. VICE met with Guo-Qiang just before he gave a talk at London's Frieze Art Fair to discuss his life, work, and the movie about it all.

VICE: Why did you agree to do this documentary?
Cai Guo-Qiang: Many people are interested in my exhibitions at museums, or the explosion events, but they are also equally curious about how I create these works. The documentary film manages to do something that cannot be done by an exhibition, which is that you get to see my complicated feelings for my hometown, my family, and my country. I hope that you see the real me, because oftentimes when people talk about me and what they say about me, I don't think it's the real me. I feel that the film manages to capture the real vulnerability that I feel. The difficulty and vulnerability on the screen is very real. Everyone has their moments of solitude, difficulties, and vulnerability. Film can make not just the work accessible to people, but also the artists.

Was it a new experience being followed by a film crew?
Not really. When I do an exhibition, oftentimes there is a film crew that is filming me, so I'm used to it. This time it was different in that it was done for a feature-length movie. And they didn't want to just see my art, but also my personal life.

Was it hard to talk about more personal subjects like your father, who's also an artist but also very sick?
In the beginning, yes, but now I'm more used to it. Being able to talk about him makes it easier. Recently, I featured his paintings in my solo exhibition in the Netherlands, putting his work next to my own work.

A photo of 'Sky Ladder,' courtesy of Cai Guo-Qiang's studio

Sky Ladder, the work documented in the film, was a project that you failed multiple times trying to complete. What exactly happened?
In the beginning, I didn't expect at all that there would be a failure. I had already accomplished many great projects that were part of the explosion events, such as Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (1993), or Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16 (1994). But during my first attempt at Sky Ladder in Bath, England in 1994, the aviation company told me that I needed a permit, otherwise flights would crash into the balloon. It was perfectly fine otherwise, but I could not do it at that time. Later on I obtained the permit and they said that I could attempt the project at a certain time on a certain day, but then it was raining too hard to attempt it on that day. It was then that I realized Sky Ladder was not an easy thing to complete.

How did that failure make you feel?
It excited me even more, maybe because the project was so difficult to realize.

'Earth Has Its Black Hole Too: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 16' (1994)

One of the things that comes through in this film is that you need money to make your art. Is that a good or bad thing?
It's just a reality. Sky Ladder is very popular now, and I will be asked to create a lot of Sky Ladder paintings to sell, but I don't want to do that. In the art world I've already obtained many major awards, including the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale. After, I was offered lots of opportunities to do popular events that would have a lot of financial gain, but that doesn't mean I will necessarily do them.

Why did you decide to move to New York?
I lived in Japan for eight years before moving to New York, but I was looking forward to a place like America to change my opinion on things, and force me to come up with new perspectives.

How did it add to your perspective?
At the beginning, since I don't speak very much English, I had to rely on my work to communicate. I hope that I can convey my ideas visually, so that through people's eyes they can tell what I'm communicating. Another interesting thing about New York is that whatever you do there, and however much you have accomplished in the world, you are an ordinary person in the city. You can lead a quiet life and interact with lots of friends who are incredible public figures in a way where you don't feel special or different. For example, the father of my daughter's classmate has won an Academy Award and another has won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Is it a problem for you that you don't speak much English?
I should say yes, but life-wise, it's not that difficult in NYC because we have Chinese-speaking doctors and there are many people speaking Chinese and at our studio. We even have a Chinese cook.

Cai Guo-Qiang

Were you someone who liked explosions as a kid?
Not really. Actually, when I was a kid, I was even afraid of lighting a firecracker. It was my grandmother who held my hand and encouraged me to [use them]. I tend to be cautious and rational, prone to keep everything under control. I'm also a little timid, so I needed a medium to get rid of the rigidity in myself for the art. In my hometown [Quanzhou, China], there were so many firecracker factories, so I had easy access to gunpowder. Using gunpowder as a medium became a way to liberate myself.

Do you ever ask yourself if you want to stop using gunpowder in your practice?
Yes, I've often have the thought that one day I will know longer use gunpowder, but it still has its unique appeal. And, for now, there are still many issues with using gunpowder. Whilst it still has issues, I feel like working with it.

'Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang' is out now on Netflix.

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