“Why cannot I surpass Picasso?” challenges the young artist to the people who discouraged his artwork. Little did they know that this young artist was none other than Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, Known for his electrifying artworks using a special ingredient, gunpowder. The larger-than-life pieces of art fill the sky in colourful and shimmering smoke and fireworks.

An Architectural review of Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang - Sheet1
Cai Guo-Qiang and a gunpowder painting_©Luo Sang- Cai Studio
An Architectural review of Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang - Sheet2
Angels of Bath Abbey_©westconcordunionchurch.org

A 2016 Netflix documentary, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo Qiang, follows the achievements and works of the artist. The documentary captures behind-the-scenes Cai’s most compelling dream project, Sky Ladder. A church is shown in the documentary, depicting the angels ascending the ladder to heaven. This was Cai’s concept for his dream project. Cai said, “I realized art could be my space-time tunnel connecting me to the universe. But the purpose wouldn’t be for me to go to space but to create a back-and-forth dialogue in between.”

An Architectural review of Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-qiang - Sheet
Ninth Wave Installation at Power Station of Art, Shanghai_©Power Station of Art

This 76-minute documentary comes across many projects by Cai Guo Qiang. His first project shown is an exhibition named Ninth Wave at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai. The name of the exhibition was derived from its highlighting installation. The concept behind this work was inspired by the Russian painting Ninth Wave. The Ninth Wave is the deadliest and the most destructive. A dilapidated fishing boat with 99 life-size replicas of animals laying lifeless. This installation depicts the final struggle of humanity in a disaster-stricken world.

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Heads On- Ninth wave_©Cai Studio

Through the documentary, we can see the different beliefs and philosophies followed by Cai Guo Qiang. As a part of the Ninth Wave exhibition, Cai tried to bring attention to China’s Climate change through an installation called Silent Ink. The installation shows a pond-like tank with 20,000 litres of black ink depicting the ecological damage to the water, causing mass aquatic loss. Some other installations are Impressions of Ninth Wave, a gunpowder painting, Air of Heaven, installation of 3 baby dolls in a motorized swing set, and Head On, 99 life-size replicas of Wolves arched in the air, colliding into a transparent glass and piling down into pain.

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Opening Day exhibition_©JJY Photo- Cai Studio

On the opening day of the exhibition, Cai Guo Qiang created a daytime firework on the riverfront using a rainbow-coloured biodegradable powder, a reproach to Shanghai’s prevailing grey hues. The explosive event followed themes like Elegy, remembrance, and consolation. 

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, the director of this documentary, has wonderfully streamlined the life story of Cai, helping the audience to connect with him. Not only does the film focus on Cai’s career, but it also touches upon his bond with his family, which helped in shaping his art. Cai’s father is a respected artist and calligrapher. His artistic expressions are reflected in the works of Cai.

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Firework commission by Cai Guo Qiang- 2008 Beijing Olympic_©thebeijinger.com

Cai Guo Qiang got the opportunity to display his work at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium. The concept was to make the performance modern, artistic and international. Cai wanted to make the country and its people proud and open. Through this collaboration, one of the best-known fireworks shows by Cai, his collaboration with the Chinese government, faced turn downs. “Everywhere in the world, artists work with their governments in projects like the Olympics,” noted Cai in the film. “But this is only a problem if you’re Chinese.”

The Chinese government appears large throughout the film. In 2014, Cai worked for the Chinese government at the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). He thought of three artistic visions for the conference. But the authority rejected reducing the artwork to a straightforward firework show which led to Cai’s disappointment.

Zhang Yimou, film and creative director of Beijing Olympic and APEC, says, “Art needs to be free, but these projects have political requirements.” The film talks about the free-spirited expression artists get in western countries as compared to eastern countries.

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Sky Ladder-The fourth attempt_©Cai Studio

Cai Guo Qiang was very ambitious about his dream project: Sky Ladder. He attempted to execute thrice before. In 1994, in Bath, Cai was ready to execute this project for the first time, but the bad weather led to the cancellation. Next, in Shanghai in 2001, the execution got cancelled due to 9/11 security concerns, and in Los Angeles in 2012, the permit was cancelled due to the risk of forest fires.

The year 2015 was the fourth and final attempt to perform the firework. This time Cai had chosen the site at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, China. He says, “My earlier proposals were either more abstract or ceremonial. Sky Ladder today is tender, and touches my heart deeply: it carries affection for my hometown, my relatives, and my friends.” Cai wanted to dedicate this project to his 100-year-old grandmother who has been his biggest supporter. Her health deteriorated rapidly but Cai wanted her to see one of his explosion events in person. So, he held this event secretively without getting official permission.

At 4:49 am Chinese Standard Time, June 15th, 2015, the balloon was ignited. Everything was at stake for Cai. What would have happened? Would Cai’s grandmother be able to see his dream project? Would a fourth time be a charm? Watch Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo Qiang streaming on Netflix.


The film is pleasurable and inspiring to watch for everyone. The visuals and the background score never stop to keep viewers disengaged. It is fascinating how director Kevin Macdonald helped audiences understand the political and social forces that helped develop one of China’s major artists and his journey.  The documentary is a very stimulating introduction to this extraordinary talent.


  1. Colossal. (2015). Artist Cai Guo-Qiang Sends a 500-Meter Ladder of Fire into the Sky Above China. [online] Available at: https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/08/sky-ladder-cai-guo-qiang/.
  2. ‌Cascone, S. (2016). Cai Guo-Qiang Sets the Art World Aflame in New Netflix Documentary. [online] artnet News. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cai-guo-qiang-sky-ladder-netflix-652061.
  3. ‌Cascone, S. (2014). Cai Guo-Qiang Fireworks for New Aspen Art Museum Opening. [online] Artnet News. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cai-guo-qiang-fireworks-for-new-aspen-art-museum-opening-71646 [Accessed 18 Jun. 2022].
  4. ‌Artnet News. (2014). Cai Guo-Qiang’s The Ninth Wave Up the River. [online] Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/cai-guo-qiang-sends-ark-of-undead-animals-up-huangpu-river-what-63763.
  5. Bradshaw, P. (2016). Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang review – jaw-dropping pyrotechnicsThe Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/13/sky-ladder-the-art-of-cai-guo-qiang-review-kevin-macdonald.
  6. ‌Cai Guo-Qiang. (2018). HOME • Cai Guo-Qiang. [online] Available at: https://caiguoqiang.com/.
  7. www.netflix.com. (n.d.). Watch Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang | Netflix Official Site. [online] Available at: https://www.netflix.com/title/80097472.

Ishika is an architecture student, with a bag full of dreams to travel the world. She allures good novels and poetry and wishes to keep learning something new. While you see her relaxing, her mind would probably be in chaos and overthinking about something dumb.

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