Since 2002, French champagne house Ruinart – established in 1729, and now owned by LVMH – has collaborated with a contemporary artist, tapping them to create works of art inspired by its products. Past collaborators have included Maarten Baas, Piet Hein Eek and Erwin Olaf, with Chinese artist Liu Bolin chosen for 2018. ‘We’d wanted to work with Bolin for a long time,’ says Frédéric Dufour, Ruinart’s CEO. ‘He’s an artist who stands for something.’

Bolin, aka ‘the invisible man’, is known for painting his body and photographing himself camouflaged against diverse backgrounds – a comment on man’s relationship to his surroundings. In August 2017, just prior to the grape harvest, he spent ten days at Ruinart, producing eight photographs of the estate and the people working there.

Liu Bolin at a Ruinart crayère

Artist Liu Bolin in one of Ruinart’s crayères. Photography: James Tolich

Throughout the year, these works will travel to more than 30 major art fairs, including Art Basel, Frieze and FIAC. But you can also visit the scene of where it all took place, with a two-hour Ruinart tour that offers the advantage of champagne tasting.

Ruinart’s story stretches back to the 17th-century Benedictine monk Dom Thierry Ruinart, who lived in an abbey close enough to Paris to learn about a new ‘wine with bubbles’ that was driving the aristocrats wild. When he returned to his native Champagne region, he told his brother that he believed the beverage had serious potential. In 1729, Dom Ruinart’s nephew Nicolas created the world’s first champagne house and soon after, Nicolas’ son, Claude Ruinart, moved the estate to its current address in Reims with the ingenious idea of using the local crayères (chalk pits) to store the champagne. With a constant temperature of around 10°C and close to 100 per cent humidity, they provided the ideal conditions for maturation.

Lost In Blanc de Blancs Bottles clothing

The clothing painted for Lost In Blanc De Blancs Bottles, held by Ruinart cellarmaster Frédéric Panaiotis, who also appears in the work. Photography: James Tolich

The Gallo-Romans started excavating the region’s crayères two millennia ago, using the chalk to build Reims. Today, the crayères and their connecting tunnels zigzag for hundreds of miles underground. They are beautiful and mysterious, with narrow openings at the surface expanding into vast white chambers below. They have served the interests of monks, smugglers and Second World War soldiers, and their rough white walls bear religious icons, graffiti and other marks of this rich history. In 2015, Unesco classified them a World Heritage Site.

In Ruinart’s crayères, the deepest locally, several hundred thousand bottles of bubbly age slowly in the dim golden light. Last year the company decided to renovate a ‘secret’ crayère that had collapsed after the Second World War, hiring five climbers to reinforce the walls. It will now be an oenothèque where VVIPs can taste particularly old vintages.

Ruinart disgorgement machinery

The removal of the sediment from the neck of the bottle, a process known as disgorgement. Photography: James Tolich

As well as the crayères, what moved Bolin about Ruinart was the human element in its manufacturing processes, the centuries of expertise behind the employees’ skills. ‘These people are working here, their life is here, so it was important to have them in the photographs,’ he says. To symbolise the ‘invisible’ hands behind each bottle of champagne, the artist posed with several workers – disappearing into the fields with the cellarmaster and into the disgorgement production line with three of its operators. He also posed with Pablo Lopez, one of the house’s two riddlers. Lopez practises a rare ancestral craft, ‘reading’ the champagne by hand, tilting and rotating the bottles in order to draw the sediment into the neck so that it can be removed later. In that photograph, he and Bolin are camouflaged against gyropalettes, the machines that take over once Lopez has programmed them to reproduce his gesture.

Ruinart’s previous artistic collaborations are displayed at the estate in Reims, as is the first piece the house ever commissioned, an advertisement designed in 1896 by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. As part of his project, Bolin paid tribute to that original collaboration by painting himself into Mucha’s art nouveau poster.

And when Bolin unveiled his Ruinart photographs during a party in March 2018 at the Grand Palais in Paris, the chic, champagne-sipping crowd watched in fascination as the artist disappeared into an oversized version of Jean-François de Troy’s 1735 painting Le Déjeuner d’Huîtres (said to be the first in history to depict a bottle of champagne), only to become part of another chic, champagne-sipping party from three centuries ago. §

As originally featured in the October 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*235)