The first time I saw an Instagram post of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s (pronounced SIGH – KWO – CHANG) Sky Ladder I was in awe. I felt incredibly drawn to the colors and beauty and scale of the piece, as well as Cai’s vision as an artist. His desire to find a way to physically connect the Earth with the Universe, and the persistence he used to see his dream through.
“There is no failure or success in art.” – Cai Guo-Qiang
After more than 21 years of trying and “failing”, Cai finally “succeeded” in his dream of building and then setting on fire, a more than 1,600 foot ladder into the sky — a piece that he believed to be a ladder to Heaven… a way to connect one place on Earth with outer space.
His first attempt in 1994 was foiled by rain and bad weather. His second attempt, in Shanghai in 2001, was shut down due to a heightened terrorist threat in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th. And in a third and major blow to his vision, the city of Los Angeles pulled the permit on him and his team in 2012 due to wildfire risks.
Cai’s obsession and persistence for the project stemmed from a sadness he felt as a child living in the small village of Quanzhou, China, and watching the Apollo XI moon landing and feeling that he himself would never be able to make it to space. Years later he realized that art could be his “space-time tunnel” connecting him to the Universe.
To encourage a back and forth dialogue between Earth and the Universe
In 2015, after persistently trying to launch his Sky Ladder in cities all over the world, Cai returned to his hometown of Quanzhou. And after three days of rain delays, with the help of volunteers from his small village, he finally realized a 21-year-old dream.
“Under the sky of the Communist party, this is absolutely forbidden,” he says in the Sky Ladder documentary on Netflix. But regardless, Cai and his team worked in secret through the night and in the earliest hours of the morning on June 15th, 2015, with no audience — save the volunteers and his family — Cai raised the ladder into the sky and set it ablaze, performing a “nearly impossible” show and one that had proven to be one of his most expensive.
“We tried this in many places around the world and it only succeeded here. Small village, huge potential.”
Cai’s persistence in this work is an absolute inspiration.