Cellar dweller: photographer Erwin Olaf immerses himself in the house of Ruinart
Champagne house Ruinart has been collaborating with artists and designers for a few years, joining forces with creative talent to bring to life the inspiration and history behind their products. After working with Maarten Baas, Hervé Van der Straeten, Nendo and Piet Hein Eek – among others – the company enlisted Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf to create a body of work which adorned a dedicated champagne bar during Frieze Masters. The photographer immersed himself in the house of Ruinart, and was invited to create an expressive oeuvre that embodies the spirit of Ruinart and celebrates the 120th anniversary of their first collaboration, with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha in 1896.
Better known for his sleek, staged and intricately produced images, Olaf’s initial idea was more in line with his extant work, but a visit to the company’s cellars changed his mind, he explains. ‘When I was in the cellars, I noticed something I had not seen before: there were drawings, signs of nature, signatures carved in the stone, machines, bottles, so I started to photograph these elements, isolate them.’ Olaf drew from his journalistic background and produced a series of black and white images that highlight these traces of human life.
‘I returned five times into the cellars,’ says Olaf, who created the work over the course of two years, ‘each time isolating pieces, looking for references.’ Soon he found that these anonymous traces had similarities with modern and contemporary art: a series of bottle racks resembled works created by the Zero movement; other shadows on the walls (or imprecisions in the plaster), once captured reminded him of Rothko, Seurat or Damien Hirst. The collection of images is as much an exploration of his own approach as a photographer as it is a testimony of time and human passage in the Ruinart cellars. ‘I had to explore myself as well, because this was something I had never made before – [to] take a piece of wall, photograph it. I would say that is the closest I could come to my own art.’
For champagne, this is a radically different approach; a drink that is so much about light, universally thought of as gold and sparkly, is identified via a series of moody, dark images. ‘The vineyards are about light, the cellars are about darkness,’ explains Olaf, who sees a strong connection between the light and dark dichotomy of photography with what Ruinart does. ‘Photos, like champagne,’ he concludes, ’need darkness to find light.’