Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Behold Sky Ladder, a pyrotechnic artwork by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, as it rises 1,650 feet into the air.
Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist known for blowing up a deciduous tree on the National Mall and dangling nine automobiles through the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, has completed what may be his greatest work of art yet.
In June, the artist executed Sky Ladder, a project he first proposed 21 years ago. The piece features an approximately 1,650-foot-long stepladder-shaped apparatus attached to an enormous helium balloon. Fuses and golden fireworks affixed to the stepladder were ignited as the balloon pulled the ladder up into the air—rising higher than any building in the U.S.
Three times since he first proposed Sky Ladder, Cai has attempted to execute this pyrotechnic performance: first in Bath, England, where he came up with the idea in 1992; then again in Shanghai in 2001; and finally in Los Angeles, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (for a show called “Sky Ladder”). Three times he failed to get the proper permissions, according to a note from the artist’s studio, most recently thanks to wildfires burning in L.A. (The artist detonated plenty of materiel during his L.A. run, but not the titular work.)
The fourth time was the charm: In June, Cai ignited Sky Ladder in his home town of Quanzhou in Fujian. In addition to looking lovely as it rose over Huiyu Islet—a traditional fishing village far from the kinds of structures rising so high elsewhere in China—Sky Ladder also served as a birthday present for Cai’s 100-year-old grandmother.
And before the naysayers chime in, let’s clarify: A 1,650-foot-tall fire-ladder is taller than any building in America. It is not taller than One World Trade Center, counting the spire (1,776 feet tall with it; 1,368 feet without it). However, if the antenna counts for 1 WTC, then the helium balloon ought to count for Sky Ladder.