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Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder - Realized as a Gift for the Artist’s Hometown, After Three Attempts Over the Past Twenty One Years 

Sky Ladder, realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015 at 4:49 am, approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo by Lin Yi, courtesy Cai Studio

          On June 15, 2015 at 4:49 am, Cai Guo-Qiang realized the explosion event Sky Ladder off the shore of Huiyu Island, a small and picturesque fishing village in the artist’s hometown of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China. A gigantic white balloon filled with 6200 cubic meters of helium and with a 5-ton pulling force slowly dragged a 500-meter long, 5.5-meter wide ladder lined with quick-burning fuses and nozzles of gold fireworks high into the sky. Cai ignited the ladder from the bank, causing dazzling flames to race along the beach before climbing onto the platform where the ladder was first laid out. Hissing violently, the flames rushed upwards as the golden ladder of fireworks rose steeply from the ground, curving elegantly against the backdrop of the dawn sky. After 60 seconds, the fireworks started to die out from the bottom up, bit by bit, as if the ladder was moving upwards, leading the viewers to look up and converse with infinity. The explosion lasted a total of 150 seconds. 

Top Left:  View of inflated helium balloon. Top Right: Local residents assisting in the preparation process for Sky Ladder. Bottom: Sky Ladder, realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015 at 4:49 am, approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photos by Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio

          Over the past 21 years, Cai attempted the Sky Ladder project on three occasions: Bath (1994), Shanghai for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (2001), and Los Angeles (2012). The anecdotes relating to the realization of this artwork have become widely known and in the course of its development it has touched the hearts of many people. Finally realized in Quanzhou, Sky Ladder was offered as a gift for Cai’s 100-year old grandmother, his parents, family, and hometown. Cai’s grandmother and his father’s generation first lived in a fishing village by the sea in Quanzhou. It was also where, as a little boy, Cai looked up into the starry night, trying to communicate with the unknown world above him. Since leaving Quanzhou at the end of 1986, Cai has left his artistic footprints in distinguished art institutions across five continents. Quanzhou’s rich history and diverse culture, with its mysterious local lore and openness to communicating with the world, has deeply impacted Cai’s art and life throughout his nearly thirty years of art practice. Huiyu Island, where Sky Ladder was realized, still preserves its traditional harbor and boats. Local villagers worked alongside the artist’s family, friends and team from preparation to execution, wholeheartedly supporting the project. Sky Ladder is the story of Cai’s departure and return to his hometown—a touching story of kinship, and belonging. 

         “Behind Sky Ladder lies a clear childhood dream of mine. Despite all life’s twists and turns, I have always been determined to realize it. 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. In contrast to my other attempts, which set the ignition time at dusk, this time the ladder rose toward the morning sun, carrying hope. For me, this not only means a return but also the start of a new journey.”                                                                                                                    
- Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s family watching the explosion event Sky Ladder, Huiyu Island, Quanzhou, Fujian, 2015. Photo by Kaiwei Wu, courtesy Cai Studio

Cai Guo-Qiang: the origin of Sky Ladder
          Over ten years ago, around the late nineties, I visited Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. This City of Seven Hills is truly beautiful. Every time when it gets foggy, the buildings on the hills appear to float in the fog, as though in a mystical land.
          The director of the Israel Museum introduced me to a well-known rabbi. The rabbi said, “Let me tell you a story. Since ancient times, many people from all parts of the world wished to be buried in the valley in Jerusalem. A lot of biblical figures, including King David, were buried here. Every evening, the tombs of the sages are lit one by one, and the lights illuminate the path in the valley.” Then he asked, “Do you know why people wished to be buried here? Because before the apocalypse, God will come to redeem mankind. Then a ladder will rise from the top of the hill, piercing through the clouds. Those buried here will be the first to climb up the ladder to heaven.”
 
Cai Guo-Qiang: Three Attempts in Twenty-one Years

          A few years earlier, in 1994, which was before I moved to New York, I had come up with a proposal titled “Making a Ladder to the Earth” that was similar to the rabbi’s story. It was planned first in Bath, an ancient city in England known throughout the world for its cultural heritage. In the first century, Romans favored the hot springs here and built many luxurious baths around the city, hence the city’s name. Inspired by a relief on the cathedral there, I planned to have a ladder, five meters wide and five hundred meters high, hauled into the sky by a hot-air balloon at a hilltop in the city. The UK Civil Aviation Authority had approved the proposal. It was not until we were about to realize the project that they told us, though approved, our project could not start right away. It would take them another month to notify all airlines and private jet pilots! We filed our notice in a hurry, expecting to be back the next month.
          A month later, we returned excitedly. On the day the project was supposed to be realized, the ladder was set up on a lawn, with gunpowder bound to it, and we test-flied the hot-air balloon. As soon as the balloon took off to the sky, it was repeatedly brought down to the ground by strong gusts of wind. In our plan, the hot-air balloon was to haul the ladder up into the sky, but now it could not even rise fifty or sixty meters high by itself.
          In 2001, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, I returned to the idea of the “Sky Ladder” project. My plan was to run two strands of fuses along the Huangpu River, one from each bank, and the two strands would join in the middle of the river to form the two halves of a ladder. The horizontal rungs were to ignite one by one, and the sides of the ladder would ignite vertically upward into the sky. At the time the technical team suggested not using a hot-air balloon, as a balloon has no resistance against the wind, but to use an airship instead. The airship would resist the wind; if it flies in the direction the wind comes from, it would not be blown away. We thus remodeled a forty-meter-long airship on a huge airplane hangar in the suburbs of Shanghai. Everything was ready as the date of APEC approached, then the 9/11 attacks struck… As the U.S. President George W. Bush was coming to Shanghai to attend APEC, for the evening of the APEC opening, it was announced they would “clear the skies,” and any flying object over the summit meeting would be automatically shot down with missiles, with no exceptions, including my airship. The “Sky Ladder” project was once again postponed.

 

Top Left: Cai Guo-Qiang with fuse for unrealized Making a Ladder to the Earth: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 20, Bath, England, 1994. Top Right: Proposal for unrealized explosion event APEC Cityscape Fireworks: Heavenly Ladder, Shanghai, 2001. Bottom: Computer rendering of unrealized Sky Ladder explosion event at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, 2011. Photos courtesy Cai Studio

          I made a research trip to Los Angeles for my 2012 exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art. Next to the hill with the Hollywood sign stands the Griffith Observatory, where NASA trained the astronauts on the Apollo missions to the moon. They received training in celestial navigation, so in case the apparatus on their spacecraft failed to function on the way back to Earth, they could navigate in the starry sky of the universe with their naked eye. How fantastic would it be to ignite a ladder to the universe at dusk from here, so everyone in LA could see! Yet again, it didn’t work. MOCA received a letter from the observatory saying that a severe wildfire had hit the hills in that area several years ago. Furthermore, to realize my project, we must have the consent of all the residents in that area. For my APEC proposal, we only needed one American to approve, but this time round, we needed the approval of hundreds of thousands of Americans …
          So this ladder still exists only in my mind. Perhaps it is the only ladder that allows me to have an eternal dialogue with the universe, so infinitely far, yet so close. I don’t know when my ladder will ever rise into the sky, or whether it is still necessary for it to do so. Perhaps in my mind, the ladder is already soaring above the clouds.
 
Text by Cai Guo-Qiang, 2012. Full text originally published in Cai Guo-Qiang: Ladder to the Sky. Deitch, Jeffrey, ed. Munich, London, New York: DelMonico Books | Prestel, 2012.

 
About Huiyu Island
         Huiyu is the only village under the administration of Quanzhou located on an island. It has been inhabited since the mid-Qing Dynasty and has a current population of 1227. Celebrated as “the Kulangsu of Quanzhou,” Huiyu Island is known for its well-preserved ecology, fishing culture, and its unique Southern Min folk culture. Tucked away from bustling cities, the island is a beautiful paradise.
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