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Carmen Herrera is one of the oldest working artists today. She was a pioneering abstract painter in the '40s and '50s, but only recently found the recognition that eluded her for most of her career, as she approaches her 100th birthday.
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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