Gunpowder and Golden Ladders: Cai Guo-Qiang and the wonder of the incarnation

On Sunday I preached on Christmas as a story of hope; light breaking into the darkness. You can check out the talk here.

I used an example to illustrate the power of the incarnation. It’s from the Netflix documentary Sky Ladder, about the work of the contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who makes incredible artwork using gunpowder. I would really recommend checking it out.

The documentary opens with Cai reflecting on the origins of gunpowder, and he says that its original creators were looking for an elixir to make themselves immortal and in the process they came up with this substance that is so potent and which has transformed the world, for good and for bad. In some sense, that quest for immortality underpins all of Cai’s work

In his early works, Cai started out mixing gunpowder with paint, setting it alight and allowing the explosions to create dramatic patterns on canvas. But over time he expanded his work into larger explosion events, where in essence the whole sky became his canvas, and he would fill the dark sky with displays of light and power, fire and coloured smoke. Some of his explosion events include Remembrance Day and the Beijing Olympics.

But the project focussed on in this documentary was the Sky Ladder. Two things particularly inspired this project. The documentary shows him standing outside a religious building on which there is a ladder carved into the stone, with statues of people climbing upwards. It’s a picture of people seeking to get close to God. The idea fascinated Cai.

Secondly, in 1969 Cai, along with the rest of the world, watched the space mission that led to the moon landing. He found himself gripped, but also saddened that he would never be able to make the journey to space. So he began to dream about creating a ladder that would reach into the heavens, enabling him to get closer to God. He said this:

“I’m exploring a connection to an unseen power… I want to connect the Earth to the Universe… The purpose of this ladder… would be to encourage a back-and-forth, a dialogue.”

Over 20 years he wrestled with how to turn this dream into a reality, and had three failed attempts. Then in the early hours of the morning, on 15th June 2015, he and a team of workers gathered in a small harbour town in China. They floated a huge white balloon, filled with 6,200 cubic metres of helium into the air over the harbour. Attached to the bottom of the balloon was a ladder, 500 metres long, coated with gunpowder and gold fireworks. At 4.49am Cai lit the fuse, and over the next 2 and a half minutes a ladder of gold and fire climbed half a kilometre into the heavens.

You should watch the documentary to see it in its fullness. It’s a moving moment as this decades-old dream gets realised. It’s a remarkable work; a celebration of light and power, the quest for immortality. This longing for man to climb into the heavens to dialogue with God.

And one of the reasons I think it’s so powerful is because it taps into longings that many of us have. We long to climb above the darkness of this world. We long for immortality, and our hearts break when we encounter pain and death. And many of us intuitively feel like God must be the answer… but He feels so distant.

In Cai’s words, we long to connect with an unseen power; to create a ladder of light that will transcend the darkness of our world.

And the message of Christmas is that we do not long in vain. Our dreams are not misplaced. God also wants to connect Heaven and Earth, to open dialogue. But instead of demanding that we build a ladder to Him, He descended the ladder to us.

God stepped into this world. Light stepped into the darkness. 

Emmanuel.

God with us.

Merry Christmas.

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

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