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Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016)

Trace the rise of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang from childhood in Mao's China to global art world superstar, and join his quest to realize his lifelong obsession: Sky Ladder.


Kevin Macdonald
1 nomination. See more awards »


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Credited cast:
Ian Buruma Ian Buruma ... Himself
Guo-Qiang Cai Guo-Qiang Cai ... Himself
Wen-You Cai Wen-You Cai ... Herself
Wenhao Cai Wenhao Cai ... Herself
Ben Davis Ben Davis ... Himself
Jeffrey Deitch Jeffrey Deitch ... Himself
Phil Grucci Phil Grucci ... Himself
Thomas Krens Thomas Krens ... Himself
Tatsumi Masatoshi Tatsumi Masatoshi ... Himself
Orville Schell Orville Schell ... Himself
Jennifer Wen Ma Jennifer Wen Ma ... Herself
Hong Hong Wu Hong Hong Wu ... Herself
Yimou Zhang ... Himself


Trace the rise of contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang from childhood in Mao's China to global art world superstar, and join his quest to realize his lifelong obsession: Sky Ladder.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Discover an artist reaching for the sky




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English | Mandarin

Release Date:

14 October 2016 (UK) See more »

Also Known As:

Escada Para o Céu: A Arte de Cai Guo-Qiang See more »


Box Office

Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs



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Did You Know?


Cai Guo-Qiang Project & Exhibition Footage:
  • "Black Christmas Tree: Explosion for Washington D.C." footage courtesy of The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
  • "Making of Gunpowder Drawing Day and Night" footage courtesy of Eslite Gallery and Taipei Fine Arts Nuseum
  • "Falling Back to Earth" footage courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art
  • "Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe" Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum videography by Mika Johnson
  • "Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe" Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain"
  • "Cai Guo-Qiang: Inopportune" footage courtesy of MASS MOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art)
  • "Light Cycle" footage courtesy of Creative Times
  • "The Story of Reflection - A Gift from Iwaki" directed by Tadashige Shiga, edited by Eizoukirokusya, videography by Makoto Nawa, Yoshio Kanno and Hidenori Kawamata
  • "Cai Guo-Qiang: Sunshine and Solitude" footage courtesy of Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo & UNAM
  • "Transient Rainbow" footage courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
See more »


My Song 9
written by Helen Feng (as Feng Haining)
performed by Nova Heart
See more »

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User Reviews

Art is a bang
6 November 2017 | by linkogeckoSee all my reviews

One of the best signs to gauge your engagement in this documentary is whether you find the idea of an artist whose main medium is fireworks and explosions original and brilliant or not. Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese-born artist from an artistic family, his father did traditional calligraphy and painting and, during the Cultural Revolution, somewhat found himself in hot water for it. As a reactionary posture towards this social context and the personal one stemming from their complicated relationship, along with the symbolic weight of fireworks and gunpowder as iconic Ancient Chinese inventions, Guo-Qiang rejected these traditional mediums and embraced this unexpected new one.

"Sky Ladder" does an excellent job of showing these personal and cultural dimensions to his work, specially in following the development of the titular performance. A conceptual pyrotechnic ladder extending hundreds of meters into the air tethered by a balloon, already failed on 3 attempts, Sky Ladder seems to represent Guo-Qiang's most personal work. The narrative of the film isn't entirely dedicated to Sky Ladder but it remains a constant topic and is crucial to the third act as it mostly deals with the 4th attempt to execute it, this time in a small Chinese fishing village significant to the Cai family for a number of reasons. Along the way, the documentary lets us know plenty about the artist's personal life, his early work, what art critics and personalities think of him and his work both in the East and West as well as give him plenty of opportunities to show his candor in one-on-one interviews. One such interview of note is the one where he questions why his work for the Chinese government (he designed the fireworks shows for the 2008 Olympic Ceremonies) is questioned while most Western artists' isn't, despite no government being free from sin.

The documentary is extensive and thorough (as is usually the case with director Kevin Macdonald), dealing with the politics of China as influence and sometimes foil for this artistic creation. An emotional narrative is also followed to show the artist's relation to his art becoming hugely successful and how this might clash with his original iconoclastic vision, as well as moments with his family, friends and collaborators. The profile is completed by showing that Guo-Qiang's art consists of more than fireworks displays, we see plenty of his museum-packing multimedia installations as well as his also-iconic "gunpowder paintings". Overall, "Sky Ladder" works as a very complete profile on an interesting, innovative artist, without leaving his human size unexplored and as a very small window to peek into the massive landscape of modern China and specifically its art, which has produced figures as well-known as Zhang Yimou, Ai Weiwei and yes, Cai Guo-Qiang.

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