Artist Liu Bolin's Disappearing Act at Maison Ruinart
A photo series of meticulous camouflage within the champagne house's property in Reims
Throughout his startling and political career, Chinese artist Liu Bolin's multi-step "Invisible Man" work has bound together location, precise calculation, and layer upon layer of paint—all for the sake of one masterful image. The process itself is an act of art but nothing compares to the completed project: ornate scenes where the artist himself disappears into the background. Each work questions the idea of visibility. Every creation, beautiful on the surface, begs for deeper consideration. As part of their continued commitment to art, Ruinart commissioned Bolin for eight works produced on their iconic grounds in Reims, France. Across 10 days, the artist mapped out and executed shoots that rendered himself—and local staff producing the champagne—visibly invisible. As with the brand's previous work with the likes of sculptors Jaume Plensa and Dustin Yellen, this isn't a marketing ploy. No consultancy advises on who they should tap next. It's a decision made by those working for Ruinart and it's an act of passion. The result, this time known as "Reveal the Invisible," happens to be an extraordinary body of work.
To best understand the work requires peeling away the history of the artist. Bolin began as a sculptor some 23 years ago. Painting, performance and photography manifest in his portfolio in the ensuing years. The "Invisible Man" project, incorporating it all, is more than a decade running. To Bolin, however, none of these individual titles or specifications matter. "For me, I am an artist," he shares with CH. "The photography and performance are just different styles and forms to show my art. The most important part is not the tool but to express myself," he says.
After Ruinart reached out, Bolin accepted the project (within 24 hours of the ask) as a way to "understand more deeply the culture of Europe and champagne," he explains through a translator. Location is central to his work and the maison's eight kilometers of caves appealed to his artistic interests. Upon arrival, he was surprised. He couldn't imagine such a place. "I am very sensitive to color and form," he continues. "I'd never seen photos like that before," he adds, regarding what he knew he could produce. Entering what felt like such secret places and learning the specific and time-tested process of champagne-making, Bolin decided to highlight the employees working on site, as well. "It was important for him to shed light on these people," the interpreter notes, because they are fundamental to the space. Bolin and his team dedicated two or so days each to capturing the final image.
"That was the intention," Frédéric Dufour President of Ruinart explains, "it was to reveal what you never see." Dufour and his team were drawn to Bolin for his focus on humanity, and the presence or absence of humans. "We try to go a very different direction each year, a different style," he adds before noting that this was one of the most exciting collaborations and sets the bar high. Each commission is developed over a year (at the same time the previous year's commission travels the world).
Ruinart's relationship with the arts began in 1896, when the house commissioned Czech artist Alfons Mucha to make an illustrated advertisement. It was the first champagne brand poster ever—and controversial for the buxom female depicted. Bolin painted himself into a series of these posters, successfully replicating the brilliant colors of the original. It's certainly one of the most captivating images from the series, even in the face of brand messaging. A mesmerizing, carnivalesque bottle shot, where Bolin disappears with Ruinart chef de caves Frédéric Panaiotis, also works surprisingly well for its sheer complexity. All of the others really demonstrate Bolin;s fascination with the winemaking process, from the vineyards of Grande Montagne de Reims to gyropalettes. These should also be interesting to anyone unfamiliar with such processes.
The eight works will tour the world over the next year, stopping at several of the most important global art fairs; Art Basel Hong Kong next and Frieze New York in May being two standouts. When the photographs were unveiled at the Grand Palais in Paris this week, Bolin offered a live performance; his team blended him into the background of the first-ever painting involving a bottle of champagne (which happens to be Ruinart, according to speculation, because of the distinct bottle shape), a commission of Louis XIV. It's uncertain yet if Bolin will continue the live performances. But another unique piece of art exists: the clothes that are painted upon. "The photo is the artwork," he concludes with us. "The clothes are a part of the artwork. I have no idea about that [if they will get their own exhibition] but I've collected them all from the beginning." To get close to these articles reveals their true artistic merit and another dimension to Bolin's vision.
Images courtesy of Ruinart