“I first met Cai when he was working on an explosion project at the Royal Academy,” Wendi Murdoch recalled of her initial encounter with her friend the famed Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
That might not sound like a customary means of introduction, but for Cai, explosions are par for the course. The Chinese artist has spent decades working chiefly with gunpowder, first training it at traditional canvases before switching over to the sky, organizing massive fireworks displays you might recognize from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. There have been hugely ambitious projects like a six-mile extension of the Great Wall of China into the Gobi Desert, too, but you’d be excused for missing them: Though they often take up to years of preparation, and can take an entire village (literally), Cai’s works are often only experienced for a matter of minutes.
That’s changing now thanks in large part to Murdoch, who coproduced a film about Cai, Sky Ladder, which debuted at Sundance and which will premiere on Netflix this Friday. The pair first met 15 years ago, when the artist moved in to Murdoch’s New York neighborhood, and started sending his kids to the same Chinese school. In that time, too, Murdoch produced her first film, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and three years later Cai became the basis for her next project: “I wanted people to see this brilliant, modest, unfailingly kind and humble person, the equally beautiful art he was creating, and to understand the hardships he’d endured in pursuit of it,” Murdoch said.
Indeed, “Sky Ladder,” the film’s titular project, and Cai’s childhood dream, was actually 20 years in the making: He attempted it three times over the last two decades before finally succeeding at stretching a string ladder of gold fireworks and explosives 1,650 fiery feet into the sky last year, buoyed by a hot air balloon over Huiyu Island Harbor in the city of Quanzhou. That also happens to be where Cai grew up, and, fifty years ago, lit his first firecracker under the supervision of his grandmother. She’s the reason Cai gave the project one last go, despite nearly impossible odds, including rough winds and the pressure of doing it all, even with the involvement of an entire village, under wraps, lest the government got word and shut things down.
As the film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, shows in tense scenes with government officials discussing his commissions, Cai is used to working under constraints. And he was determined for his grandmother, who was in declining health, to see the ladder before her death, so he laid the groundwork between nightly visits to the hospital, FaceTime-ing it all for her when it turned out she couldn’t make it to the harbor. (She passed away a month after the project’s completion.)
For Cai, though, the three-minute phone call was enough: He’d always intended to keep the project a secret, and word only got out when a local leaked a video onto Facebook, pleasantly surprising the artist when it racked up 30 million views in two days. After all, he hadn’t always intended it exclusively for his grandmother: Sky Ladder is actually no. 20 in “Projects for Extraterrestrials,” his series attempting to dialogue with whatever, or whomever, else is up there in the sky and beyond.