Cai is an energetic, kind-eyed man whose prolific career spans from his youth painting alongside his father (a traditional Chinese calligraphist) during China’s Cultural Revolution to his recent life as an art star, traveling almost weekly to mount museum exhibitions and orchestrate explosion events the world over. But while Sky Ladder gives a well-rounded glimpse into the trajectory of Cai’s artmaking, its Oscar-winning director, Kevin Macdonald (of The Last King of Scotland and Marley), and producers, Wendi Murdoch (who also serves on Artsy’s board), Fisher Stevens, and Hugo Shong, were more interested in exploring what makes the man tick.
“Though they might know my work, many people don’t know me,” Cai explains. “The film shows my past and how I function—things a lot of people don’t want to admit, or don’t want to show.” Cai is referring in particular to his relationship to China, the country where he was raised, where he’s realized many of his most ambitious projects, and where much of his family still lives. In the past 10 years, he’s worked with the country’s government on two major projects: the firework displays for the Beijing Olympics as well as those for the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). In each instance, he has received flack from a number of critics who regard his involvement as an agent of the Communist Party’s propagandistic tactics.
“The audience often only looks at the end result and judges whether it’s a success or a failure; they question why, on the surface, I wanted to work with the Chinese government. But this perspective lacks an understanding of the very deep, personal, emotional attachment I have with the land,” Cai explains. “The film didn’t try to avoid any of those conflicts. And as an artist, you inevitably have different conflicts with the world, with the country in which you’re working, with history—it’s unavoidable. But this is life, this is the truth.”