China's most explosive artist has built a 1,650-ft tall ladder made of fire

Updated 17th October 2016
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Cai Guo-Qiang sky ladder
China's most explosive artist has built a 1,650-ft tall ladder made of fire
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
Cai Guo-Qiang is back, and with his most ambitious project to date: a 1,650-foot ladder in the sky made of -- what else? -- fire.
The Chinese artist, who featured in CNN Style's inaugural TV show, is the subject of an upcoming documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and produced by Wendi Murdoch. It was released on Netflix on October 14.
"Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang", which received its European premier at the London Film Festival, showcases Cai's exquisite gunpowder art, which he says explores Eastern philosophy and contemporary social issues.
And with unprecedented access to Cai's studio, Macdonald arrives just in time to see the artist fulfill a career-long ambition.
Cai Guo-Qiang: The artist who 'paints' with explosives
Cai, winner of the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, told CNN earlier this year that "the most powerful artwork is when there's fear."
There's plenty of that going around in the lead up to setting fire to his ladder, a delicate structure entwined with gunpowder, suspended by a giant balloon in the waters off Quanzhou, China.
Just before 5 a.m. on a summer's morning, with family and friends watching, Cai sets off his creation.
It's a surprisingly serene moment and yet a mighty crescendo to a project 21 years in the making, after failed attempts in 1994, 2001 and 2012.
Watching from home is his elderly grandmother. It's a poignant milestone; a woman who once saved their living room from ruin when a young Cai accidentally set a canvas on fire in one of his early gunpowder experiments. Even more touching is that after failed attempts in Bath, Shanghai and Los Angeles, Cai succeeds in his hometown.
"Listen to that sound, full of power and grandeur," says the artist. "It's amazing, amazing, amazing."
His sincere pleasure in his craft is infectious, as well as the relief when all goes to plan. Cai's mother, looking on, wryly concedes that "these people [his crew] have been through some difficult days."
"You can go back to sleep now," Cai tells his grandmother afterward. He'd finally done it.
"Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang" is available on Netflix on October 14.